Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 13

John Seeks His Kind

FOR many weeks after his return from the wilderness John spent a good deal of his time at home, or in the neighbouring city. Apparently he was content to sink back into the interests of the normal adolescent. He resumed his friendship with Stephen, and with Judy. Often he took the child to a picture show, a circus, or any entertainment suited to her years. He acquired a motor-bicycle, on which, upon the very day of the purchase, Judy was treated to a wild ride. The neighbours said that John’s holiday had done him good. He was much more normal now. With his brother and sister too, on the rare occasions when he met them, John became more fraternal. Anne was now married, Tom was a successful young architect. The two brothers had generally maintained a relation of restrained hostility to one another, but now hostility seemed to have mellowed into mutual tolerance. After a family reunion Tom remarked, “Our infant prodigy’s positively growing up.” Doc was delighted by John’s new companionableness, and often talked to him at great length. Their main topic was John’s future, Doc was anxious to persuade him to take to medicine and become “a greater Lister.” John used to attend to these exhortations thoughtfully, seeming to be almost persuaded, once Pax was present. She shook her head, smilingly but reprovingly at John. “Don’t believe him, Doc,” she said, “he’s pulling your leg.” In this period, by the way, John and Pax often went together to a theatre or concert. Indeed, mother and son were now seeing a great deal of each other. Pax’s interest in the drama, and in “persons,” seemed to afford him an unfailing common platform. Occasionally they even went up to London together for a week-end, “to see the shows.”

There came a time when I began to feel a certain curiosity as to the meaning of this prolonged period of relaxation. John’s behaviour seemed now almost completely normal. There was, indeed, one unusual but unobtrusive feature about it. In the midst of conversation or any other activity he would sometimes give a noticeable start of surprise. He would then perhaps repeat the immediately preceding remark, whether his own or the other person’s; and then he would look around him with amused interest. I fancied that for some time after such an incident he was more alert than before it. Not that in the earlier stage he had seemed at all absent-minded. He was at all times thoroughly adjusted to his surroundings. But after these curious jerks the current of his life seemed to reach a higher tension.

One evening I accompanied the three Wainwrights to the local Repertory Theatre. During an interval, while we were drinking coffee in the foyer and discussing the play, John gave a more violent start than usual, spilling his coffee into the saucer. He laughed, and looked about him with surprised interest. After a moment’s awkward silence, in which Pax regarded her boy with veiled solicitude, John continued his comments on the play, but (as it seemed to me) with new penetration. “My point is just this,” he said. “The thing’s too lifelike to be really alive. It’s not a portrait but a death-mask.”

Next day I asked him what had happened when he spilt his coffee. We were in my flat. John had come to inquire if the post had brought information about some patent or other. I was at my writing-table. He was standing at the window, looking out across the deserted promenade to the wintry sea. He was chewing an apple that he had picked up from a dish on my table. “Yes,” he said, “it’s time you were told, even if you can’t believe. At present I am looking for other people more or less like me, and to do it I become a sort of divided personality. Part of me remains where my body is, and behaves quite correctly, but the other, the essential I, goes off in search of them. Or if you like, I stay put all the time, but reach out in search of them. Anyhow, when I come back, or stop the search, I get a bit of a jolt, taking up the threads of ordinary life again.”

“You never seem to lose the threads,” I said.

“No,” he answered, “The incoming ‘I’ comes slick into possession of all the past experiences of the residential one, so to speak. But the sudden jump from God knows where to here gives a bit of a jar, all the same.”

“And when you’re away,” I asked, “where do you go, what do you find?”

“Well,” he said, “I had better begin at the beginning. I told you before that when I was in Scotland I used to find myself in telepathic touch with people, and that some of the people seemed queer people, or people in a significant way more like me than you. Since I came home I’ve been working up the technique for tuning in to the people I want. Unfortunately it’s much easier to pick up the thoughts of folk one knows well than of strangers. So much depends on the general form of the mind, the matrix in which the thoughts occur, so to speak. To get you or Pax I have only to think of you. I can get your actual consciousness, and if I want to, I can get a good bit of the deeper layers of you too.”

I was seized with horror, but I comforted myself with incredulity.

“Oh, yes, I can,” said John. “While I’ve been talking, half your mind was listening and the other half was thinking about a quarrel you had last night with —” I cut him short with an expostulation.

“Righto, don’t get excited,” said John. “You haven’t much to be ashamed of. And anyhow I don’t want to pry. But just now — well, you kept fairly shouting the stuff at me, because while you were attending to me you were thinking about it. You’ll probably soon learn how to shut me out at will.”

I grunted, and John continued: “As I was saying, it’s much harder to get in touch with people one doesn’t know, and at first I didn’t know any of the people I was looking for. On the other hand, I found that the people of my sort make, so to speak, a much bigger ‘noise’ telepathically than the rest. At least they do when they want to, or when they don’t care. But when they want not to, they can shut themselves off completely. Well, at last I managed to single out from the general buzz of telepathic ‘noise’, made by the normal species, a few outstanding streaks or themes that seemed to have about them something or other of the special quality that I was looking for.”

John paused, and I interjected, “What sort of quality?”

He looked at me for some seconds in silence, Believe it or not, but that prolonged gaze had a really terrifying effect on me. I am not suggesting that there was something magical about it. The effect was of the same kind as any normal facial expression may have. But knowing John as I did, and remembering the strange events of his summer in Scotland, I was no doubt peculiarly susceptible. I can only describe what I felt by means of an image. It was as though I was confronted with a mask made of some semi-transparent substance, and illuminated from within by a different and a spiritually luminous face. The mask was that of a grotesque child, half monkey, half gargoyle, yet wholly urchin, with its huge cat’s eyes, its flat little nose, its teasing lips. The inner face — obviously it cannot be described, for it was the same in every feature, yet wholly different. I can only say that it seemed to me to combine the august and frozen smile of a Buddha with the peculiar creepy grimness that the battered Sphinx can radiate when the dawn first touches its face. No, these images fail utterly. I cannot describe the symbolical intention that John’s features forced upon me in those seconds. I can only say that I longed to look away and could not, or dared not. Irrational terror welled up in me. When one is under the dentist’s drill, one may endure a few moments of real torture without flinching. But as the seconds pile up, it becomes increasingly difficult not to move, not to scream. And so with me, looked at by John. With this difference, that I was bound, and could not stir, that I had passed the screaming point and could not scream. I believe my terror was largely a wild dread that John was about to laugh, and that his laugh would annihilate me. But he did not laugh.

Suddenly the spell broke, and I leapt up to put more coal on the fire. John was gazing out of the window, and saying, in his normal friendly voice, “Well, of course I can’t tell you what that special quality is, can I? Think of it this way. It’s seeing each thing, each event, on its eternal side, instead of merely as a dated thing; seeing it as a living leaf on the tree Yggdrasill, flushed with the sap of eternity, and not merely as a plucked and dried and dated specimen in the book of history.”

There was a long silence, then he continued his report. “The first trace of mentality like my own gave me a lot of trouble. I could only catch occasional glimpses of this fellow, and I couldn’t make him take any notice of me. And the stuff that did come through to me was terribly incoherent and bewildering. I wondered whether this was the fault of my technique, or whether his was a mind too highly developed for me to understand. I tried to find out where he was, so that I could go and see him. He was evidently living in a large building with lots of rooms and many other people. But he had very little to do with the others, Looking out of his window, he saw trees and houses and a long grassy hill. He heard an almost continuous noise of trains and motor traffic. At least I recognized it as that, but it didn’t seem to mean much to him. Clearly, I thought, there’s a main line and a main road quite close to where he lives. Somehow I must find that place. So I bought the motor-bike. Meanwhile I kept on studying him. I couldn’t catch any of his thoughts, but only his perceptions, and the way he felt about them. One striking thing was his music. Sometimes when I found him he was outside the house in a sloping field with trees between it and the main road; and he would be playing a pipe, a sort of recorder, but with the octave very oddly divided, I discovered that each of his hands had five fingers and a thumb. Even so, I couldn’t make out how he managed all the extra notes. The kind of music he played was extraordinarily fascinating to me. Something about it, the mental pose of it, made me quite sure the man was really my sort. I discovered, by the way, that he had the not very helpful name of James Jones. Once when I got him he was out in the grounds and near a gap in the trees, so that he could see the road. Presently a bus flashed past. It was a ‘Green Line’ bus, and it was labelled ‘BRIGHTON.’ I noticed with surprise that these words apparently meant nothing to James Jones. But they meant a lot to me, I went off on the bike to search the Green Line routes out of Brighton. It took me a couple of days to find the right spot — the big building, the grassy hill, and so on. I stopped and asked someone what the building was. It was a lunatic asylum.”

John’s narrative was interrupted by my guffaw of relief. “Funny,” he said, “but not quite unexpected. After pulling lots of wires I got permission to see James Jones, who was a relative of mine, I said. They told me at the Asylum that there was a family likeness, and when I saw James Jones I knew what they meant. He’s a little old man with a big head and huge eyes, like mine. He’s quite bald, except for a few crisp white curls above the ears. His mouth was smaller than mine (for the size of him) and it had a sort of suffering sweetness about it, specially when he let it do a peculiar compressed pout, which was a characteristic mannerism of his. Before I saw him they had told me a bit about him. He gave no trouble, they said, except that his health was very bad, and they had to nurse him a lot. He hardly ever spoke, and then only in monosyllables. He could understand simple remarks about matters within his ken, but it was often impossible to get him to attend to what was said to him. Yet oddly enough, he seemed to have a lively interest in everything happening around him. Sometimes he would listen intently to people’s voices; but not, apparently, for their significance, simply for their musical quality. He seemed to have an absorbing interest in perceived rhythms of all sorts. He would study the grain of a piece of wood, poring over it by the hour; or the ripples on a duck-pond. Most music, ordinary music invented by Homo sapiens, seemed at once to interest and outrage him; though when one of the doctors played a certain bit of Bach, he was gravely attentive, and afterwards went off to play oddly twisted variants of it on his queer pipe. Certain jazz tunes had such a violent effect on him that after hearing one record he would sometimes be prostrate for days. They seemed to tear him with some kind of conflict of delight and disgust. Of course the authorities regarded his own pipe-playing as the caterwauling of a lunatic.

“Well, when we were brought face to face, we just stood and looked at one another for so long that the attendant found it uncomfortable. Presently James Jones, keeping his eyes on mine, said one word, with quiet emphasis and some surprise, ‘Friend!’ I smiled and nodded. Then I felt him catch a glimpse of my mind, and his face suddenly lit up with intense delight and surprise. Very slowly, as if painfully searching for each word, he said, ‘You — are — not — mad, NOT MAD! We two, NOT MAD! But these —’ (slowly pointing at the attendant and smiling) ‘All mad, quite, quite mad. But kind and clever. He cares for me. I cannot care for self. Too busy with — with —— ‘ The sentence trailed into silence. Smiling seraphically, he nodded slowly, again and again. Then he came forward and laid a hand for an instant on my head. That was the end. When I said yes, we were friends, and he and I saw things the same way, he nodded again; but when he tried to speak, an expression of almost comic perplexity came over his face. Looking into his mind, I saw that it was already a welter of confusion. He perceived, but he could not find any mundane significance in what he perceived. He saw the two human beings that confronted him, but he no longer connected my visible appearance with human personality, with the mind that he was still striving to communicate with. He didn’t even see us as physical objects at all, but just as colour and shape, without any meaning. I asked him to play to me. He could not understand. The attendant put the pipe into his hand, closing the fingers over it. He looked blankly at it. Then with a sudden smile of enlightenment he put it to his ear, like a child listening to a shell. The attendant took it again, and played a few notes on it, but in vain. Then I took it and played a little air that I had heard him play before I found him. His attention was held. Perplexity cleared from his face. To our surprise he spoke, slowly but without difficulty. ‘Yes, John Wainwright,’ he said, ‘you heard me play that the other day. I knew some person was listening. Give me my pipe.’

“He took it, seated himself on the edge of the table, and played, with his eyes fixed on mine.”

John startled me with one sharp gasp of laughter. “God! it was music,” he said. “If you could have heard it! I mean if you could have really heard it, and not merely as a cow might! It was lucid. It straightened out the tangles of my mind. It showed me just precisely the true, appropriate attitude of the adult human spirit to its world. Well, he played on, and I went on listening, hanging on to every note, to remember it. Then the attendant interrupted. He said this sort of noise always upset the other patients. It wasn’t as if it was real music, but such crazy stuff. That was why J. J. was really only allowed to play out of doors.

“The music stopped with a squawk. J. J. looked with a kindly but tortured smile at the attendant. Then he slid back into insanity. So complete was his disintegration that he actually tried to eat the mouthpiece.”

I believe I saw John shudder. He was now standing at the window once more, and he stood silent, while I wondered what to say. Then he exclaimed, “Where’s your field-glass, quick! Damned if that’s not a grey phalarope. Priceless little devil, isn’t he!” In turn we watched the small silvery bird as it swam hither and thither in search of food, heedless of the buffeting wave-crests, Beside the gulls it was a yacht amongst the liners. “Yes,” said John, answering my thought, “the way you feel when you watch that little blighter, just observant and delighted, and — well, curiously pious yet aloof — yes, that’s the starting-point, the very first moment, of what J. J. was working out in his music. If you could hold that always, and fill it out with a whole world of overtones, you’d be well on the way to ‘us.’”

In the tone of John’s “us” there was something of the shy audacity with which a newly married couple first speak of “us.” It began to dawn on me that the discovery of his own kind, even in a lunatic asylum, must have been for John a deeply moving experience. I began to realize that, having lived for nearly eighteen years with mere animals, he had at last discovered a human being.

John sighed, and took up his narrative. “Well, of course James Jones was no good as a partner in the job of founding a new world. I’ve seen him several times since, and he always plays to me, and I come away a little clearer in my head, and a little more grown up. But he’s incurably mad, all the same. So I started ‘listening in’ again; rather gloomily, for I was afraid they might all turn out to be mad, And really the next one almost cured me of looking any more. You see, I was trying to get in touch with the near ones first, because they were handier. I had already spotted a strain of French thinking that must be one of us, and also an Egyptian, and a Chinese or Tibetan. But for the present I left these alone. Well, my next was an infant more or less, the son of a crofter in South Uist (Outer Hebrides). He’s a ghastly cripple; no legs, and arms like a newt’s arms. And there’s something wrong with his mouth, so that he can’t talk. And he’s always sick, because his digestion doesn’t work properly. In fact he’s the sort any decent society would drown at birth, But the mother loves him like a tigress; though she’s scared stiff of him too, and loathes him. Neither parent has any idea he’s — what he is. They think he’s just an ordinary little cripple. And because he’s a cripple, and because they treat him all wrong, he’s brewing the most murderous hate imaginable. Within the first five minutes of my visit he spotted me as different from the others. He got me telepathically. I got him too, but he shut his mind up immediately. Now you’d think that finding a kindred spirit for the first time ever would be an occasion for thanksgiving. But he didn’t take it that way at all. He evidently felt at once there wasn’t room for him and me together on the same planet. But he didn’t let on he was going to do anything about it. He kept his mind shut like an oyster, and his face as blank as a piece of paper. I began to think I had made a mistake, that he was not one of us after all. Yet all the circumstances corresponded with my earlier telepathic glimpses of him — the minute room with a flagged floor, the peat fire, his mother’s face, with one eye slightly bigger than the other, and traces of a moustache at the corners of her lips. By the way, his parents were quite old people, both grey. This made me curious, because the kid looked about a three-year-old. I asked how old the baby was, but they seemed unwilling to say. I tactfully said the child had a terribly wise face, not like a baby’s. The father blurted out that he was eighteen years old, and the mother gave a high-pitched hysterical sort of laugh. Gradually I succeeded in making friends with his parents. (I had told them, by the way, that I was on a fishing holiday with a party on the neighbouring island.) I flattered them by telling them I had read in a book that deformed children sometimes turned out to be great geniuses. Meanwhile I was still trying to get behind the kid’s defences to see what his mind was like inside. It’s impossible to give you a clear idea of the murderous trick he played on me. He must have made up his mind as soon as he saw me that he’d do me in. He chose the only effective weapon he had, and it was a diabolic one. It happened this way, so far as I can tell you. I had turned from his parents and was talking to him, trying to make friends. He just stared at me blankly. I tried harder and harder to open the oyster, and was just about ready to give up in disgust when, my God, the oyster opened wide, and I— well, this is the indescribable thing. I can only carry on with the image. The mental oyster opened wide and tried to swallow me into itself. And itself was — just the bottomless black pit of Hell, Of course, that sounds silly and romantic to you. But that’s what it was like, I felt myself dropping plumb into the most appalling gulf of darkness, of mental and spiritual darkness, in which there was nothing whatever but eternally unsatisfied black hate; a sort of dank atmosphere of poison, in which everything that I had ever cared for seemed to moulder away into nastiness. I can’t explain, I can’t explain.”

John had been sitting on the corner of my writing-table. He got up suddenly and walked to the window. “Thank God for light,” he said, looking at the grey sky. “If there was some one who could understand, I could tell it all and be rid of it, perhaps. But half-telling it just makes it all come welling up again. And some say there’s no Hell!”

He remained silent for some time, looking out of the window. Then he said, “Look at that cormorant. He’s got a conger fatter than his own neck.” I came up beside him, and we watched the fish writhing and lashing. Sometimes bird and prey disappeared together under water. Once the conger got away, but was speedily recovered. After many failures, the cormorant caught it by the head, and swallowed it, slick, so that nothing was to be seen of it but its tail, and a huge swelling in the bird’s neck.

“And now,” said John, “he’ll be digested. That’s what nearly happened to me. I felt my whole mind being disintegrated by the digestive juices of that Satanic young mollusc. I don’t know what happened next, I remember seeing a perfectly diabolic expression on the kid’s face; and then I must have saved myself somehow, for presently I found myself lying on the grass some way from the house, alone and in a cold sweat. The very sight of the house in the distance gave me the creeps. I couldn’t think. I kept seeing that infantile grin of hate, and turning stupid again. After a while I realized I was cold, so I got up and walked toward the little bay where the boats were, Presently I began to ask myself what sort of a devil this baby Satan really was. Was he one of ‘us’, or something quite different? But there was very little doubt in my mind, actually. Of course he was one of us, and probably a much mightier one than either J. J. or myself. But everything had gone wrong with him, from conception onwards. His body had failed him, and was tormenting him, and his mind was as crippled as his body, and his parents were quite unable to give him a fair chance. So the only self-expression possible to him was hate. And he had specialized in hate pretty thoroughly. But the oddest thing about it all was this. The further I got away from the experience, the more clearly it was borne in on me that his ecstasy of hate was really quite self-detached. He wasn’t hating for himself. He hated himself as much as me. He hated everything, including hate. And he hated it all with a sort of sacred fervour. And why? Because, as I begin to discover, there’s a sort of minute, blazing star of worship right down in the pit of his hell. He sees everything from the side of eternity just as clearly as I do, perhaps more clearly; but — how shall I put it? — he conceives his part in the picture to be the devil’s part, and he’s playing it with a combination of passion and detachment like a great artist, and for the glory of God, if you understand what I mean. And he’s right. It’s the only thing he can do, and he does it with style. I take off my hat to him, in spite of everything. But it’s pretty ghastly, really. Think of the life he’s living; just like an infant’s, and with his powers! I dare say he’ll manage to find some trick for blowing up the whole planet some day, if he lives much longer. And there’s another thing. I’ve got to keep a sharp look out or he’ll catch me again. He can reach me anywhere, in Australia or Patagonia. God! I can feel him now! Give me another apple, and let’s talk about something else.”

Crunching his second Cox, John became calm again. Presently he went on with his narrative. “I haven’t done much since that affair. It took me some time to get my mind straight, and then I felt depressed about the chances of ever finding any one anywhere that was really my sort and yet also sane. But after ten days or so I began the search again. I found an old gipsy woman who was a sort of half-baked one of ‘us.’ But she’s always having fits. She tells fortunes, and perhaps has some sort of glimpses of the future. But she’s as old as the hills, and cares for nothing but fortune-telling and rum. Yet she’s quite definitely one of us, up to a point; not intellectually, though she has the reputation of being damnably cunning, but in insight. She sees things on their eternal side all right, though not very steadily. Then there are several others in asylums, quite hopeless. And a hermaphrodite adolescent in a sort of home for incurables. And a man doing a life-sentence for murder. I fancy he might have been the real thing if he hadn’t had a bit of his skull knocked in when he was a kid. Then there’s a lightning calculator, but he doesn’t seem to be anything else. He’s not really one of us at all, but he’s got just one of the essential factors in his make up. Well, that’s all there is of Homo superior in these islands.”

John began pacing the room, quickly, methodically, like a polar bear in its cage. Suddenly he stopped, and clenched his fists and cried out, “Cattle! Cattle! A whole world of cattle! My God, how they stink!” He stared at the wall. Then he sighed, and turning to me he said, “Sorry, Fido, old man! That was a lapse. What do you say to a walk before lunch?”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30