Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (12 page)

But instead of dying he took a stinging blow on his right shoulder, and that was all. He opened his eyes. He and Sue Martin still stood locked together, and all around them was flame like a flowerbed with the rough outline of the house wall and its peaked roof. Around their feet was the four-foot circular frame of the attic vent, which had ringed them like a quoit.

The woman slumped in his arms, and he lifted her and picked his way, staggering, into the friendly dark and the welcome hands of the firemen. But when they tried to lift her away from him she held his arm and would not let go. “Put me down, just put me down,” she said. “I’m all right. Put me down.”

They did and she leaned against O’Banion. He said, “We’re okay now. We’ll go up to the road. Don’t mind about us.” The firemen hesitated, but when they began to walk, they were apparently reassured,
and ran back to their work. Hopeless work, O’Banion amended. But for a few sagging studs and the two chimneys, the house was little more than a pit of flames.

“Is Robin really—”

“Shh. He’s really. Miss Schmidt got him out, I think. Anyway, he’s sitting on the fire engine enjoying every minute. He watched you going in. He approves of your speed.”

“You—”

“I saw you too. I yelled.”

“And then you came after me.” They walked a slow pace or so. “Why?”

Robin was safe, of course, he was about to say, so you didn’t have to—and then there was within him a soundless white flash that lit up all he had ever done and been, everything he had read, people and places and ideas. Where he had acted right, he felt the right proven; where he had been wrong, he could see now the right in full force, even when for years he had justified his wrong. He saw fully now what old Sam Bittelman had almost convinced him of intellectually with his searching questions. He had fought away Sam’s suggestion that there was something ludicrous, contradictory about the law and its pretensions to permanence. Now he saw that the law, as he knew it, was not under attack at all. As long as a man treated the body of law like a great stone buttress, based in bedrock and propping up civilization, he was fortifying a dead thing which could only kill the thing it was built to uphold. But if he saw civilization as an intricate,
moving entity
, the function of law changed. It was governor, stabilizer, inhibitor,
control
of something dynamic and progressive, subject to the punishments and privileges of evolution like a living thing. His whole idea of the hair-splitting search for “precedent” as a refining process in law was wrong. It was an adaptive process instead. The suggestion that not one single law is common to all human cultures, past and present, was suddenly no insult to law at all, but a living compliment; to nail a culture to permanent laws now seemed as ridiculous a concept as man conventionally refusing to shed his scales and his gills.

And with this revelation of the viability of man and his works,
O’Banion experienced a profound realignment in his (or was it really his) attitude toward himself, his effortful preoccupation to defend and justify his blood and breeding and his gentleman’s place in the world. It came to him now that although the law may say here that men
are
born equal, and there that they must receive equal treatment before the law, no one but a complete fool would insist that men are equal. Men, wherever they come from, whatever they claim for themselves, are only what’s in their heads and what’s in their hearts. The purest royal blood that yields a weak king will yield a failure; a strong peasant can rise higher and accomplish more, and if what he accomplishes is compatible with human good, he is surely no worse than a beneficent king. Over and above anything else, however, shone the fact that a good man needs least of all to prove it by claiming that he comes from a line of good men. And for him to assume the privileges and postures of the landed gentry after the land is gone is pure buffoonery. Time enough for sharp vertical differentiations between men when the differences become so great that the highest may not cross-breed with the lowest; until then, in the broad view, differences are so subtle as to be negligible, and the concept “to marry out of one’s class” belongs with the genesis of hippogriffs and gryphons—in mythology.

All this, and a thousand times more, unfolded and was clear to O’Banion in this illuminated instant, so short it took virtually no time at all, so bright it lit up all the days of his past and part of his future as well. And it had happened between pace and pace, when Sue Martin said, “You followed me. Why?”

“I love you,” he said instantly.

“Why?” she whispered.

He laughed joyously. “It doesn’t matter.”

Sue Martin—
Sue Martin!
—began to cry.

XIV

Phil Halvorsen opened his eyes and saw that the house was on fire. He lay still, watching the flames feed, and thought, isn’t this what I was waiting for?

Now there can be an end to it, he thought peacefully. Now I never
need worry again that I’m wrong to be as I am, and other people’s needs, the appetites and rituals of the great Average will no longer accuse me. I cannot be excluded unless I exist, so here’s an end to being excluded. I cannot be looked down on when I can no longer be seen.

The ceiling began to develop a tan patch, and hot white powder fell from it to his face. He covered it with the pillow. He was resigned to later, final agonies because they would be final, but he saw no reason to put up with the preliminaries. Just then most of the plaster came down on him. It didn’t hurt much, and it meant the thing would be over sooner than he thought.

He heard faintly, over the colossal roaring, a woman scream. He lay still. As much as anyone—perhaps more—he would ordinarily be concerned about the others. But not now. Not now. Such concern is for a man who expects to live with a conscience afterward.

Something—it sounded like an inside wall—went down very near. It jolted the foot of his bed and he felt its hot exhalation and the taste of its soot, but otherwise it did not reach him. “So come on,” he said tightly, “get it over with, will you?” and hurled the pillow away.

As if in direct and obedient answer the ceiling over him opened up—
up;
apparently a beam had broken and was tipping down into an adjoining room, upward here. Then the tangle of stringers it carried fell away and started down. High above was blackness, suddenly rent by smoky orange light—the inside of the roof, a section of which was falling in with the stringers.

“All right,” said Halvorsen, as if someone had asked him a question. He closed his eyes.

He closed his eyes on a flash of something like an inner and unearthly light, and time stood still … or perhaps it was only that subjectively he had all the time in the world to examine this shadowless internal cosmos.

Most immediately, it laid out before him the sequence of events which had brought him here, awaiting death on a burning bed. In this sequence a single term smote him with that “well, of
course!
” revelation that rewarded his plodding, directive thoughts when they
were successful for him. The term was “Average,” and his revelation came like a burst of laughter: for anyone else this would have been a truism, an inarguable axiom; like a fool he had let his convoluted thinking breeze past “Average,” use “Average,” worry about “Average” without ever looking at it.

But “Average”—Average Appetite—was here for him to see, a line drawn from side to side on a huge graph. And all over the graph were spots—millions of them. (He was in a place where he could actually see and comprehend “millions.”) On that line lived this creation, this demigod, to whom he had felt subservient for so long, whose hungers and whose sense of fitness ought to have been—
had
been—Halvorsen’s bench-mark, his reference point. Halvorsen had always felt himself a member of a minority—a minority which shrank as he examined it, and he was always examining it. All the world catered to Average Man and his “normal” urges, and this must be proper, for he was aware of the reciprocities: Average Man got these things because these things were what Average Man wanted and needed.

Want and need … and there was the extraordinary discovery he had made when Bitty asked him: if people really needed it, would there have to be so much high-pressure salesmanship?

This he threw on the graph like a transparent overlay; it too bore a line from side to side, but much lower down, indicating with much more accuracy just how interested Average Man was in the specific appetite about which he made so much noise. Now bend close and look at those millions of spots—individual people all, each with his true need for the kind of cultural pressure which was driving a man, here, to his death from guilt.

The first thing Halvorsen saw was that the dots were scattered so widely that the actual number falling on the line Average Man was negligible: there were countless millions more unaverage people. It came to him that those who obey the gospel of Average Man are, in their efforts to be like the mass of humanity, obeying the dictates of one of the smallest minorities of all. The next thing to strike him was that it took the presence of
all
these dots to place that line just where it was; there was no question of better, or worse, or more or less fit. Except for the few down here and their opposite numbers
up there, the handful of sick, insane, incomplete, or distorted individuals whose sexual appetites were nonexistent or extreme, the vast majority above and below the true average were basically “normal.” And here where he, Halvorsen might appear on the graph—he had plenty of company.

He’d never known that! The magazine covers, the advertisements, the dirty jokes—they hadn’t let him know it.

He understood now, the mechanism of this cultural preoccupation; it came to him in the recollection that he had appeared at work for three hundred consecutive working days and nobody noticed his ears. And then one day a sebaceous cyst in his left lobe had become infected, and the doctor removed it and he showed up at work with a bandage covering his ear.
Everybody began to think about Halvorsen’s ear!
Every interview had to begin with an explanation of his ear or the applicant would keep straying his attention to it. And he’d noticed, too, that after he explained about the cyst, the interviewee would always glance at Halvorsen’s other ear before he got back to business. Now, in this silver place where all interrelationships were true ones, he could equate his covered and noticeable ear with a Bikini bathing suit, and see clearly how normal interest-disinterest—acceptance—can be put under forced draft.

It came to him also
why
this particular cultural matrix did this to itself. In its large subconscious, it probably knew quite clearly the true status of its sensual appetites. It must reason, then, that unless it kept these appetites whipped up to a froth at all times, it might not increase itself, and it felt it must increase. This was not a pretty thought, but neither is the pounce of a cat on a baby bird; yet one cannot argue with the drive behind it.

So it was that Halvorsen’s reasons for not living ceased to be reasons; with the purest of truth he could say I am not unmanned; I am not unfit; I am not abnormal.… I am not alone.

All this in no-time, as he closed his eyes to await the mass even now falling on him. And the reflex of reflexes acted just as eyelids met; he spun off the bed, bounced out of the nearby window, and was on the grass outside as the ceiling and walls together met the floor in a gout of flame.

XV

The girl climbed up to the front seat of the fire engine. “Move over.”

Miss Schmidt swung her worried gaze away from the burning house, and said in a preoccupied tone, “I don’t think you’d be allowed to, little girl. We’re from that hou— Why, it’s Mary Haunt!”

“Didn’t recognize me, huh?” said Mary Haunt. She swung a hip and shunted Miss Schmidt over. “Can’t say I blame you. What a mess!” she said, indicating the house.

“Mr. O’Banion is in there; he went after Mrs. Martin. And have you seen Mr. Halvorsen?”

“No.”

“Tonio! Tonio!” Robin suddenly cried.

“Shh, dear. He’ll be along.”

“Dare he
iss!
Dare he iss! Mom
ee!
” he shrieked, “Come see my fire engine, shall we?”

“Oh, thank God, thank God they’re safe,” said Miss Schmidt. She hugged Robin until he grunted.

“I’m all choked up,” growled Mary Haunt. Again she made the angry gesture at the house. “
What
a mess. Everything I own—the war-paint, the clothes, all my magazines—everything, gone. You know what that means. I—”

I’ve got to go home now
. And it was here, on the slightest matter of phrasing that the strange flash of silver suffused Mary Haunt; not under the descending scythe of Death, nor under the impact of soul found, heart found: just for the nudge of a word, she had her timeless instant.

All her life and the meaning of her life and all the things in it: the dimity curtains and home-baked bread, Jackie and Seth whamming away at each other for the privilege of carrying her books, the spice-shelf and the daffodils under the parlor windows. She’d loved it so, and reigned over it; and mostly, she’d been a gentle princess and ruled kindly.

Did they throw you out, gal?

She’d never known where it started, how it came about, until now. Now, with astonishment, she did. Daddy started it, before she
was old enough to walk, Daddy one of the millions who had applauded a child actress called Shirley Temple, one of the thousands who had idolized her, one of the hundreds who had deified her. “Little Mary Hollywood,” he’d called his daughter, and it had been “When you’re in pictures, honey—” Every morning was a fountain to empty the reservoir of his dreams; every night he filled again from the depthless well of his ambition for her.

And everyone believed him. Mom came to believe him, and her kid brother, and finally everyone in town. They had to; Daddy’s unswerving, undoubting conviction overrode any alternatives, and she herself clinched it, just by being what she was, an exquisite child exquisitely groomed, who grew more beautiful (by Hollywood standards) every year. She wanted what every child wants: loving attention. She got it in fullest measure. She wanted to do what every child wants to do: gain the approval of her elders. She tried; and indeed, no other course was open to her.

Other books

GalacticFlame by Mel Teshco
Soulwoven by Jeff Seymour
Welcome to the Jungle by Matt London
Gifted (sWet) by Slayer, Megan
Slaughter by John Lutz
Dance of Demons by Gary Gygax
Logan's Calling by Abbey Polidori
We Will Hunt Together by J. Hepburn