Saturday was the sort of day you don't waste if you live on the Maine coast. Chilly, but starkly gorgeous. A perfect day to head up the coast of Penobscot Bay to Belfast.
I turned off Route One and followed a narrow road along the shore for a few miles. His directions led to a winding gravel road which made its way down toward the water. I rounded a bend and his home came into view. Though I'd never visited the house, something, a disconnected and fleeting memory, nagged. The place seemed familiar, though I had never been here before.
I parked, and walked toward the house. Just as I stepped onto the porch I looked out over the water, and it hit me. This was just like Randolph Donovan's home as Vernon had described in Slow Boat to Purgatory. The gravel drive. The house. The view down the Bay. Easy to see where he drew his inspiration.
A note was taped to the door. It read:
I needed something from the boat.
Make yourself comfortable in the library.
I will join you shortly.
I will join you shortly.
I peeked through the wavy glass beside the door and knocked, anyway. No answer. I opened the door and entered a foyer, dimly lit by streaks of sun from large windows and French doors on the opposite side of the house. It was quiet. Where were his wife and kids? To my right a doorway revealed the dining room. On my left a hall led deeper into the house. Hoping it led to the library, I headed down the shadowy corridor. A worn oriental runner in soft, rich colors muffled my footfalls. I poked my head in a few open doors, and tried one closed one. A set of stairs descended to darkness. I closed it quickly and passed by the other closed doors. Finally, on my right, I came upon a tall set of doors, the type that slide into the walls. They were cracked just enough for me to slide through.
The Arimathean, the follow up to Slow Boat To Purgatory is set for release in early summer 2012. Look for it on Amazon. You can keep track of Vernon and his writing at Vernon J Baker.
Interview with Vernon Baker, here.
I did, but stopped when I turned and faced the room. Shelves of books, there had to be thousands, covered the walls. The rows of books stretched upward from the floor to a ceiling at least twenty feet in height. Many of the books were old, the leather covers cracked and colored by age. Déjà Vu again caressed the furthest reaches of my mind, and my eyes moved to a certain section of the shelving. Placed beside it, as if on purpose, the rolling library ladder beckoned. Before I realized what I was doing I moved to the ladder and climbed. Both hands gripped the stringers as I scanned the book titles, searching, searching ... and then they fell on the one I sought. I'm not sure I breathed for several moments while I stood staring at the leather spine of Lolita, by Nabokov.
Could it be? Was this actually the book that hid the secret space, hidden within the old walls of the library, Vernon had written about?
I closed my eyes. This was silly. I was here to interview my friend and fellow writer. Of course he drew his inspiration from his surroundings. I laughed at the ridiculous notion that came unbidden, the feeling I had fallen into some crack in reality and was floating through the pages of his book.
I climbed back down the ladder.
Still, it was hard to turn my back without knowing what was hidden behind the Nabakov. The empty space I was sure was there seemed to call to me.
I turned myself from it, and noticed, for the first time, a large wooden desk positioned before a set of windows partially obscured by heavy curtains. Stacks of paper, multi-colored folders, what looked like the printed pages of a manuscript, neatly arranged across the desk top, sat alongside an antique letter opener and a small magnifying glass. An ornate ashtray inlaid with mother of pearl sat along the right edge of the desk, an unlit but half-finished cigar balanced along its edge. The image of Vernon with his cigar made me smile, and then I noticed the two large crystal wine glasses, both half-full of a dark, ruby-red liquid, and my smile grew. He wouldn’t be long.
I stepped toward the window to see if he was on his way up, and froze.
Someone sat in the large wingback chair facing the desk.
The back of the chair faced me but I could clearly see the top of a man’s head, his hair a golden brown, and his left hand resting on the arm of the old wingback.
Welts and scars crisscrossed the hand, and a dark silver ring adorned the man’s wedding finger. It covered the entire length of his finger from the knuckle to the hand. Along the top of the ring was a white stone of some kind, and set into that stone was a luminescent cross, a red cross.
The hand rose from the arm of the chair and gestured. The man wanted me to sit behind Vernon’s desk.
Slowly, I moved toward the desk, never taking my eyes from the wingback. The man’s legs came into view. A pair of boots made of worn brown leather, which reached his knees, were evenly spaced on the floor. As I moved closer I saw a large floppy hat on his lap, and when I reached the edge of the desk I was able to see the side of his face.
He faced the window, not me, and sunlight fell on the strong lines of his jaw, his cheek, and forehead. Long flowing hair fell below his shoulders, and softened the planes of his profile.
I reached for the edge of the desk and gripped the cool wood, reassuring myself that it, this room, and the man sitting in the chair, existed.
No sooner had that thought occurred when the man turned to me. “Hello, Paige.”
Sweet Jesus. He did exist.
His eyes bored into me, dark pools of mesmerizing intensity. It was as if I were falling into them. I resisted the urge to move closer, to peer deeper. They beckoned as if doorways to secrets and places I desperately wanted to pursue. It unnerved me.
Until he smiled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, finally. Have a seat behind the desk. We have much to talk about.”
I kept my eyes on him as I moved to the chair, a simple wooden swivel office chair, and sat. Using my notepad as an excuse, I placed it in front of me and pulled myself from his gaze. I pretended to study the list of questions for a moment, but my composure was blown. When I looked up, the man's bemused smile revealed he knew it, too.
"Vernon has been called away for a bit. A mutual friend of ours had some stories that needed telling. I told Vernon I would stand in for him. Besides...he said you’ve been dying to meet me.”
I pinched myself in the upper leg.
He laughed then, a melodic rumbling that started somewhere deep within him and echoed off the walls of books. It was the most beautiful laugh I’d ever heard. It pulled me from my wonderment and I smiled.
“That’s better. Now, you came to do an interview, to hear what Vernon has up his sleeve, to talk about The Arimathean. I believe I can help you with that.”
I took a deep breath, flipped over my page of notes to a fresh blank page and began.
“Who are you?”
Again, he laughed. “Really, Paige? I think you know the answer to that, but I’ll play along. My name is Arnaud Tousseau. At least that is the name I’ve used for the last seventy years. My real name, the name I was born with many years ago, is Gaspar de Rouse.”
At the sound of that name I accepted that I had, in fact, crossed over a plane of mortal existence and entered a world beyond my understanding. Either that, or I was fast asleep in my bed dreaming the most vivid and life like vision of my life.
“Or perhaps, a combination of both,” he said.
“You’re reading my mind.” How could this be a dream?
“Of course I’m reading your mind, and perhaps you are dreaming. Would that make this any less real? What do you actually know of dreams? Do you know what they are and can be, who uses them as portals into the minds of men?”
He stood. He was tall, the long jacket he wore almost touched the floor. He reached across the table and pushed one of the wine glasses toward me, lifted the other, and gently touched the glasses together. The haunting peal of tiny crystal bells floated away across the room.
“Here’s to dreams, and the beings who inhabit them.”
He took a drink, gave me a wink, and sat again.
“I have so many things I want to ask you. I don’t know where to start. I wasn’t prepared. For you.”
“Ask me about wine.”
“Yes. You love wine. We have that in common although I think your love of Beaujolais could be better placed.”
I smiled. Vernon hates Beaujolais and had teased me about it on more than one occasion.
“But it isn’t really the Beaujolais you love, is it?” he mused, studying me.
No, it wasn’t. Savvy. Crafty, too. I’d have to work to get answers to my questions. “What’s your favorite wine?”
“Syrah. Old French Syrah, the kind they make in southern France. It is imbued with the centuries of men, winemakers and farmers, who have worked and trod that stony ground even longer than I have lived. There is one in particular I have an affinity for. It comes from a small vineyard hidden away from the eyes of most mortals.”
“What’s it called?”
“You were a Templar.”
“I am a Templar, Paige. I will be a Templar until the day I die. There are those who walk the earth today who claim that mantle. They have no idea what it means to take up the cross, to give your life to it.”
“You’re referring to Dominicus and the organization he belongs to, aren’t you?”
“Yes, The Order of The Broken Cross, as they call themselves. They profess to be the rightful heirs to the lineage of the Templars and while those who begat their coven were indeed Templars, they were traitors...as is Dominicus.”
“So you’re the last of the real Templars?”
“What does that mean, perhaps?”
“It means that while you are asking the questions it is I who is giving the answers, some of which will not be forthcoming. Next question.”
Something in the cast of his eyes, the sudden lack of a smile, steered my questions in another direction.
“How old are you?”
“I’m seven-hundred and fifty-six years old.”
I stared at him for a moment trying to prod my mind into acceptance of what this all meant and what to say to him.
“What’s the greatest thing you’ve witnessed in all your years?”
He thought for a moment, spun the glass, lost, it seemed, in the swirling liquid. “Mankind. I’ve seen them achieve so many great things, create such amazing civilizations. I’ve watched in wonder as artists, scientists, inventors have transformed the lives of men. Even now I can scarcely believe how the world has changed.”
“You say Mankind, as if you are no longer a part of it.”
“I’m still a man, Paige. I never stopped being a man. I simply no longer live my life as a man. I live it as if I am some sort of extraterrestrial being walking unseen and unnoticed, for the most part, among beings who look like me.”
Something had crept into his voice, a shadow had fallen across his face. I realized it was loneliness.
“What is the worst thing you’ve seen in all these years?”
There was another long drawn out pause before he answered. “How little the souls of humans have changed. For all the advancements around us mankind remains what it has always been, fierce, warlike, and destructive of each other. I’m never surprised by the savagery of men. As a warrior myself I understand it. It is part of us just as it is part of those we call angels. They exist in a state of perpetual war...why not us?”
He drank from the glass again and looked me in the eye. “Try some of the wine, Paige, and then lighten up a bit. Ask me something fun.”
I sipped the wine. It really was wonderful. Fun. Hmm. “Vernon’s hinted in the book that you’ve had a, how should I say this? Someone special in your life--I mean, you’re seven hundred years old, but you're a man....”
I made a mess of the question, which elicited another of his addicting chuckles. “I don’t want to spoil Vernon’s stories so I will only agree with your statement, I am a man.”
My cheeks burned. I tried to salvage it. “I mean, love, in general. Not just romantic love, but people you have loved, and...”
“Tell me,” I leaned forward. “About love. And loss. Please.”
“It’s a burden. And it’s liberating.”
“Will you tell me about the burden you bear?”
“Mortal moments are fleeting. One lifetime is often not enough to move beyond our own imposed boundaries and know true love.” He smiled. “Being immortal frees me to love in ways... in a way that can't quite be understood these days. To love a man in friendship, deeply and unconditionally. And accept his. To love a woman until your souls shatter. I would not have known those loves in one lifetime. Loss teaches us to love. To not waste time. The curse of loss is the most inspiring teacher.” He smiled, sadly, and then continued on in a mischievous tone. I do have a few, shall we say, guilty pleasures that ease my burdens. I have a weakness for beauty. I drive an Aston Martin. I collect art of the old Masters, and new ones. I love great wine.” He raised his glass, tipped it to me, and drank the rest in one swallow.
My eyes were drawn back to his hand as he held the glass to his lips. The ring flashed in a ray of sunlight and the red stone, fashioned into a cross, dazzled my eyes as a wave of warm invasive light enveloped my mind.
I began to panic for a moment as I realized that the room, the man seated before me, even the chair upon which I had been sitting only a moment ago were all gone and that I was floating somewhere disconnected from reality.
I felt the sudden urge to cry out when I once more heard his voice, Gaspar’s.
“It’s okay, Paige. Our time together is over, for now. We’ll meet again. It may be on the pages of Vernon’s books or it may be in some other way but we will meet again.”
As Gaspar’s voice faded away the panic and fear was replaced by a warm feeling of security and wonder. I felt an overwhelming urge to sleep...in peace.
A sound, far off intruded incessantly keeping me from the sleep I now craved. A damn phone. In a semi-comatose state I reached out and retrieved the phone that sat beside my bed only half conscious of where I was.
“Hello? Who is this.”
“It’s Vernon, Paige, are you asleep? You were supposed to be at my house at noon for our interview. What, did you drink too much crummy Beaujolais last night?”
I sat straight up and looked around the room. My room. I mumbled something into the phone, something that drew a laugh and a question from my friend. But it was what was lying on the night stand that held my attention.
A golden medallion, attached to a long gold chain of heavy links, was propped up, leaning on the bedside lamp. It was shaped like a star and in the center of the medallion was a red Templar cross ringed by words, SIGILLVM TEMPLI XPESTI. And beside the medallion was a sheet of paper. I reached out and lifted it. It was heavy, luxurious, like no other paper I’d ever felt. Written in a beautiful cursive script was a short sentence, “To, Paige. With love and affection. G. de Rouse.
“Paige? Paige? Are you there?”
Interview with Vernon Baker, here.