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The midnight club, p.10
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       The Midnight Club, p.10

           Christopher Pike
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  "My father was back not long afterward with ill tidings. My mother was dead. It seemed she had fallen into a sudden coma about the same time my


  father had taken the gem from me. My grandmother had brought us the news.

  "That night my father had a dream, which I never fully heard, but it made him aware of the connection between the siddha's gem and the death of his wife. I know he questioned my grandmother about the gem, and she told him what she knew. What I do know for certain is that my father was suddenly anxious for me to take the gem back and wear it, in case I, too, died. But when I heard everything that had happened, and what my grandmother had to say, I understood the situation more clearly than my father. I refused to take the gem unless he agreed to my marrying Dharma.

  " *Don't you see?' I told my father. *It wasn't the gem that kept my mother alive but the bond of love she had with Visnu. When in your anger you took the gem from me and ordered him away, you tried to break that bond. That is why she died. And I, too, even if I wear this gem constantly, will be as if dead if you don't let me marry Dharma. The gem's only magic is the love we bring to it.'

  "My father then confessed to me a fear. He said, *If you marry him you will leave and I will have no one to take care of me in my old age.' In those days children had to take care of their elderly parents. There was no one else to do it, I told him, 'Even if I marry Dharma I promise to stay with you until the day you die.' That made my father happy.

  "But we still had the problem of our castes. The entire village would be angry if they heard about our union. But we had an advantage—Dharma was

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE from a far-off region. No one in my town knew him or his family, and my father advised us to say that Dharma was a Brahmin. That of course was easier said than done because a Brahmin is taught many things from birth that a Sudra never learns: how to perform the hotri sacrifices and chant the Gayatri mantra and so on. But my father said he would teach Dharma all these things. For his part, Dharma was reluctant to lie. Like Visnu before him, he had an innocent nature. But I told him that it was better to lie and be together than never to see each other again. Finally Dharma said that he would be a Brahmin.

  "So we were married and at first things went well. My joy at being with Dharma erased any fear I might have had of future discovery, or at least overshadowed it. My father began to teach Dharma everything he knew as a Brahmin, and Dharma was quick to learn. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. But then my father was suddenly taken ill and died. At the same time I learned I was pregnant. The timing was unfortunate because both Dharma and I knew that the father of a child was required to perform several public pujas, or ceremonies, at the birth of a child, particularly if it was a male child. Dharma was not ready to do the pujas. There was no one we trusted enough to ask to teach him. In private, he studied the holy Vedas and tried to learn what he needed, but much of the tradition of the Vedas is passed down orally. He could only get so much out of the books.

  "The day came when our child was bom, a boy


  whom I named Bhrigu. He was an amazing child— even as an infant he exuded great peace and light. The entire village gathered to witness the pujas done in honor of Bhrigu's coming into the world. Dharma set everything up and bravely started. But it was not long before a muttering went through the crowd. Dharma was doing the pujas wrong, the elders cried. His pronunciation of the chants, even his movements in the rituals were wrong. They called out that he could not possibly be a Brahmin, and that our union must therefore be sinful.

  "We were in a real bind. I was sitting in the middle of all this with tiny Bhrigu on my lap and Dharma staring at me as if he knew he should never have agreed to this lie. The villagers were not going to stone us to death—they were not that barbaric. But they would drive us from the village without any food or other supplies, and the end result would probably have been the same as a stoning. Certainly it would have been hard for Bhrigu and me to survive in the wild. At the time there were a lot of tigers in the surrounding forests. All looked lost.

  "But just then an amazing man came walking into the village. I had never met him before but intuitively I recognized him as the siddha my mother had met the night before she was to be married. He had about him an aura of complete authority and grace. He strode right into the center of the puja and stood behind me, placing one hand on my head and the other on the child. Then he spoke to the people.

  "'It is true that Dharma is not a Brahmin by

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE birth, and that this marriage, and therefore this child, are not sanctioned by the hymns of the Vedas. But the Vedas are much more than hymns, much greater than any words. They are the expressions of the divine, of love, and when Padma and Dharma met their love was so strong that they were willing to risk everything, including their lives, to be together. Such was the power of their love. Such was the power of the divine grace in their lives. And only because of that grace was it possible for this child to be bom to them, this child you want to drive away.'

  "The siddha stopped and picked up Bhrigu and held him up for all to see. This boy will grow up to be a great seer. It will be his special mission to bring people back to a true understanding of the Vedas. He will teach divine love and he will awaken the knowledge of God in the hearts of men and women everywhere. He will teach all people, regardless of caste. In fact, he will reshape much of what you understand as caste.' The siddha smiled at tiny Bhrigu. 'This small child, you will one day call him Master.'

  "Then the siddha gave me back Bhrigu, and stared into Dharma's and my eyes, and then walked away and was gone. To say the villagers were shaken would be an understatement. The siddha had spoken with such great authority and he was so obviously an enlightened man that they didn't bother us any longer. We were left alone, although people were not friendly. But I didn't care. I had my husband and my son, and I was content, more so

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB with each passing year. Because everything the siddha had foretold turned out to be true. My boy grew into a great saint, and I became his first disciple, and he taught me and the world many things, not the least of which was that all people are equal. It was this Master, my son, who led a great spiritual revival that swept over India in those ancient times. Even to this day Bhrigu's name can be found in the Vedas."

  Ilonka stopped talking and sat back.

  Everyone was staring at her. Spence spoke first.

  "How do you know all that stuflf about the Vedas?" he asked.

  "I remember it," Ilonka said simply.

  "Have you ever studied ancient Indian culture?" Kevin asked.

  Ilonka shrugged. "I've read a few books on it, but there are things in my story that are not in the books."

  "Then how do you know they're accurate?" Spence asked.

  "I assume they are," Ilonka said.

  "Did you read these books before you remembered this hfe, or after?" Spence asked.

  Ilonka chuckled. "I know what you're really asking. Do I remember things from a past life that I am able to verify indep>endently? The answer is— Vm not sure. I read books about India when I was little. More recently I read about it after having these past-life experiences. What I learned from the books and what I remember are blurred together in my mind, but I do know I have an understanding of

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE ancient India that the authors of the books do not." She paused. "Does that make sense?*'

  "I would like to pin you down on a few specifics," Spence said. "For example, this son of yours— Bhrigu. You say his name is in the Vedas?"

  "That's right. I can show it to you."

  "Did you see the name before you had this past life come back to you?" Spence asked.

  "I don't think so. It just came to me~his name, everything about him."

  "You don't think so, but you're not sure?" Spence asked.

  Ilonka yawned. She was glad she was through with her story, she was feeling exhausted. "I couldn't swear to it.
Maybe I did see the name in some book and forgot it. I told you, I'm not positive these are past lives. I just feel they are. They may simply be products of my imagination."

  "Why all the analysis?" Sandra asked, her words still a little slurred. "Let's just enjoy it and go on to the next story."

  "I liked your story very much, Ilonka," Anya said softly, her head hanging heavy on her chest. "It touched me."

  "It was beautiful," Kevin agreed. "You're sure you were Padma, and not another person in the story?"

  Ilonka smiled. He had asked a similar question the night before. "Who else could I have been if I weren't the heroine?" she asked.

  Kevin smiled at the question. He took a drink of

  THE MroNIGHT CLUB water—he had drunk little of his wine—and cleared his throat. Ilonka was anxious for him to continue "The Magic Mirror," the tale of Herme and Teresa.

  "When Herme left the Louvre with Teresa he realized he had no place to stay except with her. Even though Teresa was in love with him, she hadn't realized that when she invited him to come with her she was picking up a roommate. Teresa had no home either—she was staying at a youth hostel. You can sleep in them at night real cheap, but you have to be gone by nine in the morning, and you can't come back until sunset. They're often crowded and uncomfortable, and the one Teresa was staying in was particularly small. On top of all that Herme, of course, didn't have a cent or centime. He didn't own any clothes except the ones he had on. Teresa was puzzled by his lack of things, but she was so in love with him that she chose to help him as best she could. She was just happy to be with him because Herme's joy was a thing of great wonder. Teresa knew it wouldn't be long before Herme made a name for himself as a famous artist. But she wasn't with him because she knew he would be a success. But it had crossed her mind a number of times, which was natural—she was, after all, a poor young woman in need of some stability in Ufe.

  "At the youth hostel Teresa had to pay for both of them. In the morning she had to buy them breakfast. Herme really wanted breakfast because even

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE though he had eaten with her in the Louvre he had done so to be polite, not because he was hungry. Now he was starving. He ate with great relish because everything tasted good to him.

  "Teresa decided their first priority was to get Herme a job. She took Herme to a portrait studio where people came to have paintings of themselves and their families commissioned. But Herme had no samples of his work to show the man who owned the place. He couldn't very well point to a da Vinci as one of his works. The man told Herme to come back when he had something to show him, which was fine with Herme. Teresa was disappointed, though. She was going through her meager amount of money very quickly.

  "But Paris is a wonderful city for artists, and walking along the streets Herme noticed many painters doing portraits right on the sidewalks. He told Teresa he would like to do that to make a living. Herme enjoyed being outside: the fresh air, the fall of the rain, the birds singing in the trees— everything was a delight to him. The only problem was that to buy supplies for Herme would exhaust the remainder of Teresa's money. But her faith in him was such that she got him what he needed: an easel, a chair, a few brushes, oils, and canvases. Herme set up his easel on a busy comer not far from the Louvre. Although he was happy to be outside the museum, he liked to see it. It reassured him in some way he didn't fully understand.

  "Herme quickly attracted clients, his skill was so

  THE MroNIGHT CLUB great, his personality so delightful. The word went around about him and he had plenty of work, but it wasn't as if he made huge sums of money. If Paris is a haven for artists, it is also one of the most competitive places on earth for them to work. Herme could do wonderful portraits, but he was forced to hurry them. It was not the way he was used to working. In the past he had always molded paintings slowly. As a result of his working quickly the quality of his work suffered, although it was still far above most of what was being done. After a couple of months working on the streets, Teresa had saved enough of his money to open up a studio for him. It was Teresa who took care of all the business details—Herme had no head for money. But he was happy with his life. He was still so much in love with Teresa. Kissing her, touching her, making love to her—these things were so new and exciting to him that he didn't for a moment regret his decision to become mortal.

  "With a studio he was able to settle into a routine, which didn't help his work. He missed being outside, and he soon tired of doing simple portraits. He was an ex-angel who helped to inspire the greatest paintings known to mankind. He wanted to branch out and paint other things, but Teresa told him that was not possible. He had clients booked months in advance, and she had already taken deposits from them and he had to paint them—end of discussion. Herme went along with her advice because he understood she knew

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE much more about the world than he did. Also, he disliked disagreeing with her because she could be stubborn and she would argue until she got her way.

  "During this time the two of them began to make substantial money, even though they were still far from rich. Teresa found them a nice apartment in a rich section of town and furnished it with antiques. Herme continued to work each day, often on the weekends as well, and did one portrait after another. Then for the first time he began to receive complaints about his work. People were no longer impressed by everything he did—the reasons varied. He had begun to charge more money, or Teresa had, and naturally the demands of his clientele had gone up. These people were paying more and they expected to get more in return. Also, as I already mentioned, he was taking on too many clients and was having to rush. Finally, though, and probably the main reason was that he was beginning to feel stale and uninspired. It was the unseen qualities that Herme had always brought out in his subjects that made his portraits so special. Now he was painting only what he saw on the surface.

  "Teresa would hear the complaints and in turn complained to Herme that he had to do better. But when he told her he needed a change of scenery she was open to the idea. Teresa had not given up on her dream of going to America, and she suggested to Herme that they move to New York. He was delighted, even though it would mean he'd be

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB leaving the Louvre, possibly forever. He continued to go back to the museum when he wasn't feeling his best, and would wander its long halls, gazing upon past glories. He still loved Teresa as much as ever, and he could see she still loved him, but he wasn't as happy as he had been the day he left the museum. He wondered if it was because their love had lost much of its spontaneity, its enthusiasm. He wasn't sure because he could no longer see into Teresa's heart—into anybody's heart—as well as he had been able to in the past.

  "They sold their studio and apartment and moved to New York City, and for a time things were better between them. Herme was not working at first and they were able to spend more time together. Their romance underwent a brief revival, but then suddenly it swung the other way. Teresa was not used to having Herme around constantly, and he had taken up the bad habit of clinging to her, something Teresa couldn't stand. Of course Herme only began to cling to her when he felt her withdrawing. He had no previous experience in human relationships. He thought the best way to combat her waning love was to pour more love her way. But this made him act strained around her, and Herme's greatest charm had always been his natural spontaneity, his ease in every situation. Now that charm was failing him and he didn't know how to act.

  "Teresa wanted Herme to start working again, but he was reluctant to do portraits. He wanted to

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE get outside to capture the many natural tapestries the earth had to offer. He also wanted to try more abstract works. What this did was put him in competition with thousands of other struggling artists in America. He was giving up his area of expertise in favor of his ideals. It goes without saying that his decision didn't thrill Teresa. She argued that they were going through their savings and that she was not going back to living hand to mouth. In fact,
she said that he owed her, that she had given him his start when he had had nothing. Herme was incapable of responding to her accusations, except by withdrawing more and more. He took to going for long walks through New York City late at night. Many times he wouldn't return home until the sun was up.

  "But one night he came back early and found Teresa was not alone. Despite everything that had happened to him since he had left the Louvre, he was still incredibly naive. He had never imagined that his Teresa could want another man. He came home to find the only woman he had ever loved in bed with another man."

  "How horrible," Anya whispered, and it was almost as if she did so involuntarily. Ilonka glanced at her but Anya did not return her look, lowering her head as if she were deep in thought.

  Kevin nodded. "It was a nightmare for Herme. He saw the man, yet he only focused on Teresa. But what could she say to him? She just swore and turned her head away. Herme didn't know what to

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB do. He walked out of his apartment. Always, even since becoming mortal, he had felt a li^t inside that guided his movements. But now that light had gone out and he found the darkness unbearable. He wandered into sections of New York he had never been to before, parts where it was as easy to buy a knife in the back as it was a handful of drugs. He hoped someone would attack him, shoot him, stab him, put him out of his misery. But no one came near him because he was in such despair. It was as if he weren't human anymore, merely a wraith sent from the netherworld to haunt humanity. He felt that way, a stain on the planet. He walked until he reached Brooklyn Bridge and moved out to the center of it, above the icy winter water. He climbed over the rail and he stared down. He saw nothing beneath him except blackness and felt nothing above him. But he didn't call out to God or pray for release. He was past the point of caring, so he thought. He planned to kill himself and be done with it.

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