It was the year of 2014 when I took my son, then a boy of 15, on an expedition around the world so that he’d witness the wonders and perils of civilization and consequently achieve a new perspective for his life. I did so in worry, for he had recently eschewed his studies in favour of what he considered to be “artistic pursuit”, but in spite of my ill-hidden motivations he seemed genuinely enthusiastic over the prospect. Marco was never too bright a lad, I’m sad to say, and it surprised me not at all that he didn’t catch onto my façade, yet still I hoped this effort would somehow light the fires of potential, and in turn help mould him into what I wished him to be.
It can be said his failures were my own. For all my planning, I could never quite grasp the subtle quirks of motherhood, and this negligence gave rise to his exacerbated rebellious streak. No amount of logic could sway him from the path of passion, and the damage had already been exacted by the time of this last-ditch attempt. It may seem extreme to take a pubescent boy around war-zones and museums merely to prove a point, but the expenses concerned me not, for I had enough to spare and more if it meant the fixing of my offspring.
The course was varied. He stood in awe as he beheld the Colosseum for the first time, in terror as we visited the then-recent troubles of Ukraine in person, and in empathetic distress as we descended into the southern hemisphere, to poverty and injustice and the temples of fallen glory across Asia and Africa. It would be hard to say exactly when the event I call “the shift” initially occurred, though its nature was eventually defined as it escalated.
At first it seemed a consequence of my initiative. He was calmer now and seldom indulged the tantrums of yore as we rode across the globe, and perhaps due to this his artistry became disciplined; his paintings and sculptures were produced at an unprecedented rate while within the luxurious rooms of cosy hotels, each an inspired and coherent piece. He grew more talkative, which in turn granted me the impression of mutual understanding, and we bonded.
I distinctly remember one particular moment wherein I first considered that he wasn’t as dim-witted as he seemed, and it was pleasant to an indescribable degree. I can’t think of any time, before or since, when I was proud of something other than my own doings.
We were in this shack in India, on a decadent town built of tradition and spirituality, and I had arranged for an audience with one self-proclaimed sage at my son’s behest. I had expected he’d pull something of the sort, given the esoteric inclinations he held, and stood tolerant in the background, an allowance for him to do his thing when the master revealed himself. It must be said, I held and still hold contempt for those who equate experience with wisdom, for one does not necessarily learn when one commits a gaffe, and neither are such mistakes required to learn. The truly wise needn’t worry over trial and error; she eschews the anecdotal, and success comes to her in a way that precludes so called experience. It follows, then, that I’d pity those that would describe their drug-or-hypnosis-induced flights of fancy as secret truths, and by extension the mental image I had produced of this man we were to meet.
It surprised me to learn of the man’s identity: not a priest or monk, but a competitive chess player of moderate renown who’d now retired. I’d met the man before, for I had faced him a number of times by the mind’s arena; some idiot savant he was then, good for chess and for nothing else. He was using an alias with religious overtones and I can’t for the life of me recall his original name, and I knew not whether to take it as an insult or a small blessing that he didn’t recognize me in return. I got to observe from a distance as they poured over their personal philosophies, both sickened by contrived ethics and generic aphorisms as they stroked each other’s conceits in this attempt at erudition, until eventually they elected to settle their differences in a poetic fashion on the board. It was Marco’s suggestion, and though the foolhardiness and pre-potency were all very characteristic for my kid, a pursuit of intellectual merit wasn’t.
I had taught Marco to play chess when he was younger, but this was a custom variant. The board was a wooden 9 x 8 thing rather than the traditional 8 x 8, and beside the king on F1 was a piece I did not recognize, one his opponent lacked – a handicap. Again, throughout the years, never had the boy shown a strategic mentality – an ineptitude that caused me no small amount of displeasure – and before that day I hadn’t been aware he remembered the rules of conventional chess, let alone the specifics of this variant or how to find this master.
Though the master eventually won, I found myself deeply interested as the game expanded. The behaviour of the mystery piece – called a Princess, I later learned, or the knight-bishop compound – added a certain authenticity to game-play which synergized well with the fact that both bishops were on same-color tiles and I found that use of drops – the placement of captured pieces by the capturing player – made for the sort of mindfuckery I love to indulge. It would’ve made for some interesting studies, I think.
It was on the month following our triumphant return. He had enrolled once more into school, due to return at the start of 2016. It burdened me to know he’d abandon art due to my intervention, even temporarily, but it was joyful to see him respond to reason. We quickened once more to the pace of life, and at the coming of his birthday a celebration was held home, his old friends invited, whom he hadn’t seen for the duration of our sabbatical. Though Marco and I had been on amicable terms since our foray, it stood in contrast to the attitude he’d developed toward his old connections, which was one of irritability. I had allowed him distance for the duration of his day, secluding myself in my room and blissfully ignorant of whatever hedonism I was so sure would take place; he soon approached me, however, with a most unusual request.
– These people vex me, so I pretended to be sick. Can you drive them off?
It was odd, for he’d been the one who’d suggested this inconvenience take place months before; he’d been adamant that these people be allowed inside, to the point he had once been willing to sacrifice our misadventure for it. The change of heart existed not only as itself, but as a profound departure from a deep-seated personality trait, and was therefore in need of further examination. Where once was an extroverted and reckless youth sat a display of bitterness and social aversion. The delivery on the request was cold, detached, deadpan. While I approved of the eloquence in his phrasing, as well as of the misanthropic sentiment made explicit, it also hinted at what could be a disturbance hidden beneath in his improved, ostensibly perfect version, a sudden departure not from weakness, but authenticity. I couldn’t take the risk of some disorder rooting itself and usurping my son, so after disposing of his mediocre liaisons I proposed that we do something more in line with his current interests, whatever those might be. His reaction was more… lively than anticipated.
– If you must truly commemorate my existence, I’ll comply. It’s not as though you’re a decade late, yes?
It was a jab, one I responded to harshly. Drama was within his syntactical preferences and I needn’t take shit from a spoiled brat, not even my own. I will grant that I’ve too a fondness for theatrics, and am to blame any further indisposition he demonstrated.
– Cease this act! You know well that it’s not wise to try my patience. I made the offer because I’ve deemed you worthy of my attention, not out of parental duty. Submit: your well-being is a naught but a concession of mine, and you would do well to show loyalty.
– It’s the other way around though, mother. You know the cards I hold: I’m an investment. It allows me a measure of control I would exert, to your chagrin. We may discuss this over coffee, if you insist.
And insist I did. Whereas I couldn’t appreciate the petulant tone, I was unwilling to argue any longer over an issue as petty as tone, and my vested interest in Marco’s development wasn’t to be jeopardized by my feelings. Also, I could appreciate that the boy had become his own person, willing to challenge my word rather than simply lashing out. It made him similar to his mother and that’s always a good thing.
I learned a great deal from our subsequent “celebration”, most of which I found fascinating, if rather distressing in implications. The boy alleged he’d been possessed by the ghost of an ancient entity, and that this had been the cause of his escalating exemplarity, as well as of his mood imbalances. To prove his point, he predicted the exact moment a bird would crash against the window nearest to us with half a minute’s prescience. He claimed that with knowledge of the bird’s existence and by casual analysis of its behavioural patterns while it perched outside, he was not only able to guess that it would crash against the glass at that specific time, but also, that the choice of table was deliberate, so that the bird’s accident could be appreciated fully when he nudged me into inquiring on the nature of his abilities. I pressed the issue, absurd as his perspective seemed, yet as I questioned further, he grew distant, oft claiming that I lacked the capacity to understand the answers. When I confronted him on the impossibility of his ghost story, he stood, indignant.
– How predictable that you would categorize anything alien to your particular set of logic as impossibility. I needn’t explain myself to you if you’re unwilling to listen! And if you cannot read between the lines nor see the inference of my speech, I’ve no choice but to woefully inform you of your inferiority!
I retorted, of course. He wouldn’t get away with such an attack on my pride, especially with such an immature argument. I wouldn’t take him at face value so his reaction is to lose composure? Bah!
– Predictable? – asked I – Nay! You are the predictable one, naïve as you ever were. Must I school you once again? Your claims are unsubstantiated: you’ve naught but words and a clumsy bird! ‘Tis insufficient; your tall tale is either fiction or delusion, with little margin for error, no matter how formidable you’ve allegedly become. I expect rigor from the blood of my blood!
– As if you were formidable! Your precious blood is mediocre, and your pride far outdoes your skill. I will not suffer an idiotic mother! Beware when you sleep, for you may wake to find yourself surpassed!
The smallest signs of malice, a foetus of an emotion aborted. His words were now implicit threats, a slip on his part. The boy had plans – his very voice reeked of of deception – and entertaining my ambitions had been naught but a way to bide his time. He might’ve seen me as an impediment, and if he had, I’ve no doubt he would neuter me in some way; maybe I was a pawn in his game, teeming with potential majesty he’d rather not waste. Either possibility was unacceptable, and had I fallen into the second category my expression forced me into the role of the first: had his capacity advanced in the ways claimed, or even some other way unknown, he would’ve considered the possibility of such an analysis and perhaps even deliberately inflicted it. His outburst stripped me of choice, left me with but one route left to explore, one which distressed me in more ways than one.
My horrified expression betrayed no hint of countermeasures. Some few eyes were upon us as we had raised our pitch in concert, and I had now to play a histrionic mother and pull the strings until a moment more opportune. He had to die. We discoursed as families would about respect that’s due to elders, tipped the waiter and drove homeward silent, and as we did, the song that bothered me reached a crescendo.
“Beware when you sleep,”, seraphin sang, “for you may wake not at all”.
Over the following weeks, I assume Marco made several subtle attempts at my life. There was an unspoken agreement between us which dictated we not acknowledge the unfortunate animosity between us, that we perform a masque of normalcy. It was a precise battle of wits and I accounted for all fronts: I did not drink from filter water, nor with any glasses he had access to; I kept him at a meter’s distance, minimum, so he and I would never bump; I did not sleep in predictable schedules and booby trapped my barren bedroom. I waited for the moment in which I could strike, to take him down before he did me.
Through pure chance, eventually, I was visited by Lady Radcliffe, my ex-wife of 27 years and a childhood friend before that. Radcliffe was an interesting woman. During that life we shared she’d shown me wits so creative as to be incomprehensible and a degree of patience for mine myriad flaws no other human ever deigned to give me. I’m overbearing, controlling, abrasive, callous, distant; it perplexes me the fact that she stood by me against the brunt of my dysfunctions. It shames me to admit I still know little of her even after sharing for so long a love, as she was a specimen too aloof to study, but if anyone’d braved the dark reaches of my soul well enough to map them, it was she. Alas, she had her own demons to battle – perhaps literally – and she deserved much better than I.
Radcliffe was a “scholar of the occult”, which meant she liked her novels Gothic and her dresses black, and it made her uniquely equipped to assess my paradigm. Assailed by doubt as I had grown I elected to make her privy to the situation in which I’d found myself. I asked her whether I’d gone crazy and if this trouble was paranormal, I pleaded for her aid and through it all her expression was impenetrable, and I couldn’t guess at what she was thinking. She chose to investigate the matter, on the condition I didn’t murder him before any other routes had been exhausted.
The first order of business was to attempt an exorcism of the boy, or so I was told. She helped me overpower and restrain him.
– I just need salt and a bunch of candles for protection, in case he escapes from his restraints. I don’t suppose you still have my stash of nail clippings stored somewhere? On the off chance, go fetch it. Or garlic, but I hate the smell of that.
Set on a wooden table, tied within the depths of my basement, Marco’s expression was serene and pleasant. As we mounted the circle of salt and set the candles all around him, he even deigned to laugh about it, but as she rose in incantation his body twitched and shook, contorting, ’till his visage was mocking rage. She then broke the spell and took me aside, out of earshot: he and I had both been tricked.
– He’s either allergic to the Pirahã language or his subconscious is reacting to an ingrained and ignorant idea of what an incantation is supposed to sound like, which leads me to conclude this isn’t possession, but psychosis. I want you to take a sample of his brain’s white matter to deliver to Clair, my pupil back in Cambridge, so we may ascertain if his alleged new abilities are of paranormal nature. Oh, and if you would be as gracious as to send a perfectly preserved ancient Egyptian cornea, I could really use one.
After some catching up, she let herself out. It was pleasant to have an ally in her, but I’d already gotten everything I needed to ensure my survival the moment we restrained my ill-fortuned boy.
I didn’t untie Marco after she left. I instead drove the first pointy object I could find through his eye and into his brain. “Make it quick”, he said to me, and those were the last words he directed at the mother who had dared raise him. In my defence, I did try to follow his request, but it wasn’t as instantaneous as I had hoped. There was screaming.