(Continuation: "The Man Who Loved Butterflies" George Dickerson)|
Johnson reached for his shirt pocket, then, realizing it was empty, responded, "I'm sorry. I'm trying to quit."
The Dane nodded. "I, too, have given up smoking." A pause, then: "It is absurd, yes?"
"What's absurd?" Johnson was having difficulty focusing on the Dane, who seemed to be wavering, like a flame guttering in the shadows.
"To give up the pleasure of tobacco," the Dane said quietly, "when one is so proximate to death."
"Proximate...to...death," Johnson echoed. His mind seemed to examine the words individually, as one might pick up pieces of shellfish at the shore and try to reconstruct their former unity and meaning.
Johnson rose and went to the window and stuck his head through the opening. No one shot at him. After a moment, he pulled his head back in and turned to the Dane.
"Are you afraid of death?" Johnson asked.
The Dane pondered for a moment. Then, with a slight smile, he answered, "Descartes said...and Bergson said...and Heidegger and Kant, they..." He shrugged, the smile gone, the eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses suddenly old and tired. "Too many arguments," he said, "by old men who forgot what life is about. Death is loss. Death is the parts of us that have been lost in other people who themselves have become lost...and so on...When I lost my wife..." The Dane paused, apparently grappling with something. He got up and paced around the room furiously with more energy than Johnson could imagine him having at his age.
Johnson, meanwhile, was feeling less pain. He grabbed the chair and started smashing it against the wall.
"What are you doing?" asked the Dane.
"I'm trying to get another leg off this chair." Smash!
"The chair is most difficult to sit in already."
"The chair is no longer for sitting, professor. I'm going to break off a leg and kill whichever Mourabitoun thug comes through that door next." Smash!
"It is too late to save the boy."
"You don't need to remind me of that." Smash. There! He almost had another leg free. Smash! Done!
"You would be killing for the wrong reason," the Dane said.
Unaccountably, the Dane had again gone into a corner and was facing away from him.
"Well, Mr. Philosophy Professor, give me the right reason." Johnson waved the chair leg in the air with as much force as he could muster without aggravating his ribs.
Still not looking at him, the Dane said, "May I confess something?"
Johnson wanted to say "no." Instead, he said, "Okay. Sure. Get it off your chest."
"It would relieve me. Especially if I do not leave here alive, it would be important to me."
Johnson had gone to the door and was trying to listen for sounds of the guard. "You're going to leave here alive, professor, but if you're trying to distract me from...
"I tried to kill my wife." The Dane had turned from the corner and was watching for Johnson's reaction.
"What did you say, professor?"
"I tried to kill her. It is that I must confess."
Johnson started to laugh. The Dane sat down in the corner and put his head in his hands. Johnson went and stood over the Dane.
"Let me get this straight," he said. "You tried to kill your wife and you have scruples about me killing a vicious gunman?"
"My wife was dying of cancer a long time."
"I'm sorry, I..." Johnson sat down a few feet away from the Dane.
The Dane continued, speaking in a low voice barely audible above the sounds of the sea: "When she could no longer bear with the pain, I wanted to help her die. I bought some pills. They only made her sicker for a while. Then one day I sat beside the bed and took her pillow and put it over her face and held it there. And I was praying to God that he would forgive me. When I took the pillow away, my wife was still alive. And she looked at me with those eyes that used to smile all the time. And I could see that she was begging me to do it, so that it would finally be finished. But I did not have the strength to do it again...to take away her pain...to help the person I loved most."
The Dane paused and chewed on his upper lip. He did not look at Johnson. Johnson scratched at the floor meaninglessly with the chair leg.
Finally, the Dane started speaking again: "It is a bad thing, but the most terrible thing was that part of me began to hate my wife...because I did not have courage to.... Sometimes, in the darkness, I still see her eyes staring at me...waiting...pleading." The Dane looked over at him.
"You can't always help." Johnson said. "You can't necessarily prevent other people's pain."
"I know," the Dane said.
Johnson fumbled for something else to say: "Look, Professor...." There was something in the Dane's eyes, something elusive that was just out of Johnson's reach. "You made that up, didn't you, Professor? To make me feel better...about... Millad."
The Dane looked at him steadily, revealing only an immense sorrow. "If there is a God, do you consider that he will forgive me for trying to kill her?" he asked.
"Oh, Professor, I'm sorry." Johnson didn't know what to think anymore. Would he know the truth if it punched him in the gut? Finally, he said, "If there is a God, one who is not the god that allows this terrible war to go on, if there is such a merciful, beneficent God, I am certain he could not help but forgive you."
"And do you think my wife has forgiven me?"
"From what you've told me about her, I'm sure she has."
"Thank you," the Dane said. "I am relieved."
Johnson got up and threw the chair leg into the corner next to his useless shoes. He felt exhausted. He was battered and bruised and weak from hunger. He went to the window to look out. The sun was starting to go down.
Johnson tried to imagine what his own wife and child were doing at that very moment. It would be morning in Connecticut. Perhaps they were walking through the woods, collecting autumn leaves. He tried to picture himself with them, but there was only the two of them, hand in hand, as if he had died. . . .
© 2000 George Dickerson ("The Man Who Loved Butterflies" is an 11,000-word story, less than half of it presented here. George Dickerson is the magazine's Senior Consulting Editor.)