May 16, 2005
With the grace of an exotic animal, she stalked her way through the African Plains. In the distance, a herd of zebras grazed, to her left a pair of lions lazed in the shade of an ancient oak tree, and nearby a hippopotamus slogged in a mud hole. But the animals here at the Bronx Zoo hardly registered. Her thoughts were elsewhere. The past felt close behind, pursuing her like an invisible flow of mental lava that threatened to overtake her.
Destiny Douglas met the critical stare of a woman pushing a stroller along the walkway. She didn’t care what the woman thought of the spider-web tattoo on her forearm or the barbed‑wire armband tattoo around her biceps, her lip ring or her nose stud, or the ebony lipstick. It went with her black vinyl pants, the petite spiked collar around her neck and the four‑inch‑wide velvet and rhinestone bracelets. She was used to the looks; she liked getting a reaction, and it didn’t matter whether it was positive or negative. She was a wild creature in her own right, more frightening than the animals on the other side of the fence, because she moved freely about, challenging the docile followers of proper decorum and acceptable behavior with her looks and actions.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” Destiny drawled, even though it wasn’t, as the woman and crying baby wheeled by. She ran her ebony nails through her short matching hair, then tugged at the hem of her T‑shirt, which featured a hulking, shadowy figure and the white‑on‑black phrase, The Goth‑Man Prophecies. She continued on, slinking past the World of Darkness, an exhibit that housed bats and other night creatures.
An unwanted image of her father niggled into her awareness. His voice stabbed at the corners of her mind. “I’m getting tired of seeing you dressed like it’s Halloween every day of the year. I hope you grow out of this phase. It’s embarrassing to be seen with you.” She still could see the admonishing words her father had written in a note to her when she was in high school.
“Well, Dad, guess what? It’s college Goth now at NYU.”
She spoke aloud as if he were walking with her. In spite of the years that had passed, she felt a tug at her heart as a memory of a childhood trip to the zoo with him came to mind. She missed him and deeply regretted how she’d reacted to his note. She’d called him up at the office and told him that she never wanted to see him again, that her father was dead as far as she was concerned. Four days later, her angry vow blossomed into reality like a black orchid stained in blood. He died, disappeared. Zap! Gone.
Don’t think about it.
She shifted her thoughts to Fids. Leave it to her off‑the‑wall uncle to want to meet her at the zoo on her birthday, as if she were still eight years old, rather than twenty‑one. In lieu of working on her senior thesis, which was what she should be doing, she’d rather be hanging with her friends on a Saturday.
Okay, where are you, Fids? You better be here now that I paid the entrance fee. And you better reimburse me, too. She never called him Uncle Fids, that sounded way too corny. He was a frumpy scarecrow of a man with a good sense of humor, odd ideas, and comfortably out of the mainstream. Along with that came a certain lack of consistency. He could be as unreliable as a drunk on a binge, even though his interest in hard liquor was about the same as his taste for a swallow of weed killer.
After getting a degree in electrical engineering, he’d turned his skills to the world of lighting for rock concerts. But he gave it up after a decade because of the heat and his growing fear of heights. Now he was close to fifty and got by as a handyman, house‑sitter, and pet walker. An all‑around metro‑man, he rode a Vespa scooter and raged against Hummers and all over‑sized, gas‑guzzling beasts of the road.
Destiny’s fondest memories of her uncle dated back to her childhood. He used to tell her strange stories about people with extraordinary abilities. He once said that he’d witnessed someone levitate several inches into the air. Another time he’d told her about a man who foretold his death to the hour and died of natural causes. His stories of ghost hunters and alien abduction sagas captured her imagination. His tales of the mysterious and unknown were a cornerstone of her childhood, and the allure remained. To his credit, her father, who didn’t share his younger brother’s interests, never criticized Fids for his lifestyle or beliefs. “He’s just being Fiddlesticks,” he would say with a shrug, referring to the childhood nickname that was shortened to Fids.
She stopped and looked up at their meeting place, a large rock that rested on a low hill. No sign of him, but he was always late so that didn’t surprise her. Slender and agile, Destiny bounded easily up the hill. When she’d asked why he wanted to meet here, he’d said that he would explain everything at the rock. Then, adding a dash of mystery, he’d told her not to touch it, as if the rock would burn her fingers.
The walkway below remained deserted. No Fids. She stepped closer to the monolith, studied its scabrous surface as if she were reading hieroglyphs. “Sorry, Fids, but you’re not here and I am.” She grazed her fingertips over the rock, the hieroglyphs turning to Braille, then carefully pressed her hand against it. No burning sensation, no shock, no revelations. She took her hand away and examined the network of tiny impressions against her skin. No sign of any monstrous growth rising from her palm, either.
She sat down, rested her back against the rock, and opened her bulky cloth handbag. She took out several pieces of mail that she’d picked up on the way out of her apartment. She flipped through several envelopes containing junk mail, and put aside the electric bill. She stopped as she came to an official‑looking envelope from the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
“About time,” she said softly.
She opened it and slipped out the brief cover letter that informed her that her request for Edgar Allan Poe’s court- martial order was enclosed. She pushed the cover letter aside to reveal the document she’d ordered three months ago related to her senior thesis. The famed poet had been kicked out of West Point, and now she had a copy of the official proceedings. The faded letterhead of the United States Military Academy displayed the West Point insignia featuring an eagle, sword and helmet. Directly below it, with no introduction, were the charges.
She carefully read the two charges, gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. Then she scanned the rest of the brief document. Poe had pleaded not guilty to the first charge, and guilty to the others. The first charge was proven by a review of the roll books for formations. The document ended with Poe guilty on all charges and dismissed from military service. At the bottom of the last page, the Secretary of War approved the court‑martial findings on February 8, 1831.
Destiny sat back and considered what she’d read. Just looking at it triggered something inside her, and she felt like weeping for the sensitive young poet. In her mind, the document certified Poe’s intent on abandoning his ties to a conventional life for one of an artist. Why, she wondered, had he pleaded not guilty to the first charge, when he was clearly just as guilty of that one as the others? Had he seen the hopelessness of the situation and conceded that there was no reason to dispute the charges? What had he done during the weeks between the court-martial in late January and his release from the academy? More importantly, what did he do after he left West Point? No one had ever answered that question, and it was one that intrigued her.
At first, when she decided on Poe for her thesis, she wanted to focus on the mystery of his death at age forty and the identity of Reynolds, the name Poe called out repeatedly on his deathbed. But Mr. Fell, her English instructor, nudged her in the direction of the young Poe and she’d eventually narrowed her research to a seven‑month period when Poe was a cadet at West Point and the weeks after his court-martial.
She felt that Poe’s negative experience at West Point influenced the rest of his life. If he’d stayed at the military academy for four years and graduated with honors, he might’ve chosen a military career, as unlikely as that now seemed. His failure, she was convinced, led to his greatness, or at least pointed him in the right direction.
But Destiny’s interest in Poe extended well beyond research for a paper. Call it an obsession and a means of forgetting about a certain tall, pale, thin Goth named Eric, who moved to Los Angeles four months ago. Rather than looking for someone new, she’d turned inward and puzzled over the missing pieces of Cadet Edgar Poe’s dismal career at West Point. In doing so, she quietly celebrated his dark sensuality, his sweeping sadness and morbid fascinations, his lost and forbidden loves, the enduring pain.
Poe was so Gothic. Even though Mr. Fell called him a calculating master of logic and her friends dismissed him because he didn’t write about vampires, she knew that Edgar Allan Poe was an eccentric genius, a man she would’ve loved had she lived in his time, had she known him.
Her concern for the tormented soul of the poet fit her own perspective. She liked to think that she and Poe were of the same heart, the same soul. She thought of herself as caring and sensitive, but like Poe she tended to brood. To that end, she understood why mountains were never majestic and inspiring to Poe, but craggy and foreboding, with slippery footholds and gnarled spires, all lost in gray gloom.
She wasn’t interested in heralding Poe, the best known writer in American history. Rather, she wanted to understand the impoverished, twenty‑three‑year‑old poet, who was abandoned by his stepfather and forced through the daily rigors of military training.
In some respects, her experiences reflected Poe’s. Like him, she’d had problems with her father. Her parents divorced when she was eleven and her father never seemed to have much time for her after that. His tragic death reinforced her Gothic tendencies, an irony since her father had written his condemning letter just days earlier. He’d called her self‑indulgent and so preoccupied with her own life that she rejected society, and he’d blamed her mother for fostering her self‑pitying and anti‑social tendencies.
After reading the letter, she tore it up into tiny pieces, dropped it into an ashtray, burned it, and flushed the ashes down the toilet. Maybe she was a tad self‑indulgent, but she wasn’t anti‑social, and she told him as much. He was full of himself, she said, and he’d lost his family because he played power games behind a desk twelve hours a day and ignored the people closest to him. She’d cut her familial ties with a sharp slash of words, then hung up on his silence.
Then the disaster, and suddenly, instead of hating him, she found out that she loved and missed him, and remembered all the good times together. For days, she’d refused to believe that he was dead. She and her mother put up posters, added his name to missing lists, and she even was interviewed by a television station and pleaded for him to contact her. When she finally accepted his death in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, she felt guilty for weeks for failing to even try to understand him and his life.
* * *
She pushed away thoughts of her father before she started getting upset again, folded the Poe document, and returned it to the envelope. Poe had made the right decision by refusing to play the academy’s games any longer and she was proud of him for that. He’d stood up for his individuality, his sense of pride and freedom. He’d taken a stand against his cold and indifferent stepfather, against West Point, and he’d paid the prices, as he knew he would.
Okay, where the hell is Fids? Destiny stood up and a wave of dizziness disoriented her. She leaned against the rock to steady herself, and heard a buzzing sound. Her knees turned rubbery and a quick heat surged through her. She gasped for breath, squeezed her eyes shut. What’s happening?
The buzzing grew louder and a force pressed against her head, as if she were sinking into the depths of the sea and the pressure in her ears wouldn’t equalize. Streaks of light from some unknown source surrounded her in a grid‑like formation. She heard a distinctive crackling, like that of moist wood burning in a fireplace.
The buzzing faded, the pressure eased, she opened her eyes, but saw nothing. A suffocating darkness had closed around her. Something rough rubbed against her arm. A musty dank odor reached her nostrils. Holding her breath, her heart pounding in her throat, she cautiously reached up and fingered material that felt like coarse wool. She pushed it away, trying to make sense of what was happening to her. She wanted to scream, but was too frightened. Wake up, she demanded. Wake up. The dream, if that’s what it was, felt too real, as if she were awake within a nightmare that she couldn’t end.
Then a muffled voice reached her: “Did you hear something?”
She froze, held her breath. A door cracked open, and with it gray light. “Damned rats. First the walls, now they’re in my wardrobe.”
She glimpsed a pair of boots and legs silhouetted against pale light. The figure turned away, leaving the door ajar. “So Edgar Poe is the best of the lot. How much time do you need with him?”
“Oh, three or four more sessions, I’d say. That should be sufficient.”
“We don’t have that luxury. Jackson arrives in New York in three days. The next evening he will attend the opera. It’s our best opportunity, Mr. Reynolds.”
“But General Burdick…”
“I’m sorry. We must act now. I’ll make arrangements so that Poe will be free to leave the post.”
As they spoke, Destiny peered out into the room. She glimpsed the corner of a desk and a wooden carving above it, which featured an eagle, a helmet and a sword. Below the eagle’s foot were three words. She couldn’t read them, but she’d just seen the same West Point insignia on Poe’s court‑martial papers bearing the words: Duty, Honor, Country. She carefully shifted her position and saw a tall man in a general’s uniform with a full beard, a high forehead and curly hair.
The other man, his back to her, sounded anxious. “But, sir, he hasn’t committed himself yet. I can’t count on him.” He wore a dark cape and high black boots. He had thick dark hair and was considerably shorter than the general.
“I thought you had him under your control.”
“More so, I believe, than the army. I am an expert mesmerist, possibly the best. However, you are asking a great deal of me. I’ve had but one session with Poe.”
How did I get here? How do I get back?
“You’re not the only one taking a chance in this matter. Do you know why I’m involved, Mr. Reynolds?”
“You want him out of office.”
“It goes beyond politics. When I was twelve years old, I witnessed a duel in which Andrew Jackson killed my uncle, Charles Dickenson, a man who had raised me after my father’s death.”
Destiny sucked in her breath as she heard a scratching inside the wardrobe. She imagined a rat, lots of rats. If one started nibbling on her leg, she would scream.
“My uncle wounded Jackson, but then he was required to stand in place for a return volley. Everyone thought that Jackson was going to fire in the air, recognizing that he had lost.”
Something was in here with her, something much larger than a rat. She was too frightened to turn her head and look, too terrified to move a muscle.
“But he didn’t do it. I watched Jackson shoot him in the heart from twenty‑four feet. He murdered my uncle, and that day I vowed I would avenge…”
She heard breathing right next to her ear. She shrieked as a pair of hands clamped over her shoulders. Heavy boots pounded across the wooden floor and the wardrobe door was flung open. Bright light flooded over her. She squeezed her eyes shut. Frightened, dizzy, disoriented, she struggled to escape.
“Destiny, calm down!”
She blinked and found herself back at the zoo, crouched on the ground her back to the rock, and face‑to‑face with her uncle, who gripped her shoulders. Her mouth moved, but no words came out.