I remember the doctor’s house as long and dark. Long halls, long rooms, ancient browns and grays, old wood, threadbare carpets. Sometimes it felt like the bare timbers stood naked, black with age like the inside of a decaying warehouse. It wasn’t really that way, though. At least I don’t think so. I seem to recall brittle plaster on the walls, and dark paneling.
The doctor’s name was Sebastian, I think. I always called him Doctor. The doctor’s house was one of the oldest in the tangle of twisting streets that led up the hill toward a decaying park. Untrimmed laurel hedges, grown tall over the years, surrounded the house protectively, isolated it from the street. What little traffic there was, was now given over to gray people with tattered bundles.
The doctor was old too, like the house. I didn’t know which was older. His face was wrinkled and creased with long lines his black coat always seemed dusty. I think the doctor had been tall once. Sometimes he still seemed tall, tall, and somehow dense. And sometimes he moved through the halls almost uncertainly, as if he was remembering someplace very different.
I helped the doctor with his work sometimes, helped him to move the stones in the garden. From the street you wouldn’t know the house had a large back garden. The tall laurel hedges hid it all. I liked to walk in the winding paths in the garden. There was a brooding peace there that I found soothing. I liked to be in the garden with the stones.
I liked to be with the stones. I was comfortable with them. I don’t remember being that comfortable with anything before. In school I was never comfortable. It always seemed so busy, so much activity, so little point to most of it.
The stones. The big ones were very large, hard, dark and cool, as tall a man and shaped with smooth convolutions that seemed almost to form faces, calm faces that gazed with understanding. I always thought of them as gazing. Some of them were lying on their backs. I didn’t know if they had always been that way, or if they had fallen over and no one had put them back. I thought of them as calmly gazing at the sky.
There were smaller stones, as well. Some were the size of a small suitcase, or a little larger, but they weren’t square like a suitcase. No, not square at all. The small stones were apt to be twisted and convoluted, but still smooth, like the large ones, and the same dark material
Sometimes the doctor had me help him move the stones. He would turn them to face each other, or away. “This one needs to talk to that one now,” he would say. “This one needs to be alone now. Hurry, we much finish before the sun passes the zenith.” The stones were lighter than they looked. “They will grow heavier with time,” the doctor told me.
The doctor let me help him in the house sometimes too, but not in what he did at night, when the people came and gathered in the downstairs rooms, and never in the basement.
The trouble started with the boys. They weren’t boys; really, they were young men, old enough to drive cars. There were four of them, dressed in black, surrounded by darkness and anger.
The first time the boys came to the house the doctor wouldn’t let them in. They stood on the porch. They talked to the doctor in the doorway. I stood in the darkness of a doorway down the hall and watched the doctor’s back as he talked to the boys. I could hear their voices, not loud, but hard and menacing. The sound of their voices frightened me.
The next night someone threw a rock through a window. The next day the boys came back and demanded money from the doctor.
That night, the doctor dismissed them at first, as he had before. I heard them. They said that if the doctor didn’t give them money they would hurt him. They said that they had been watching the people coming and going, and they wanted to know what the doctor was doing.
“Hey, you old fag, what do you do here at night when all those people come? Have orgies? What do you do? Whips and chains? Give us some money, or we could get nasty. You might not heal so good at your age.”
The doctor did have money. The people who came to the house in the evenings gave him money. Some of the people who came were old and wrinkled, like the doctor, but some of them were young, with nice clothes and expensive cars. They usually came to the house at night, and they would go into a downstairs room and chant. I thought there was a pattern of some kind to the chanting, but I was never able to know what it was. The doctor wouldn’t let me go into the rooms where they were chanting. He said there were things I had to learn first. I never saw him take anyone into the basement.
Then, as I was watching while he faced the boys, he seemed to make a gesture. He seemed to be brushing something away, and he seemed to get taller. His voice changed, became deeper, stronger, and even older. He said to the boys, “Now I see that at least one of you has qualities I had not noticed before. That’s intriguing.” The doctor pointed at one of the boys, the youngest one. “You appear to be ready,” he said. There was interest in his voice. “If you are willing, I can show you what we do in the basement here.”
He made another gesture with his outstretched hand. The other boys suddenly grew quiet and stepped back from one the doctor had pointed at. The boy hesitated, looked behind at the other boys. “What’s the matter, Chris, cold feet?” they teased.
“You have to come willingly,” the doctor said, “Or I can’t show you.”
I saw the doctor’s power clearly then, as I never had before. I remember thinking that he had picked exactly the right one. I knew that I wanted to have something like that power for myself. I knew that it was something I really wanted.
“Cold feet about what?” Chis shot back. “Sure, old man, I’ll go to the basement with you. Just keep your hands to yourself. He moved toward the door and his body seemed less tense.
The doctor made another gesture and muttered something I couldn’t quite hear. Then I could clearly hear him say, “This boy is willingly coming to learn what is to be revealed.” And his voice that wasn’t old at all, but it was deep, like the chanting. He turned to the others. “The rest of you may leave. You are not yet ready. You may return when you are. In the meantime, it is possible that you will not recall this exchange.”
Later, the doctor told me some things about the stones. He showed me the new one. He said that he would teach me. “Much discipline is required, and concentration.”
“They all go willingly,” he said. “They have to, or they could not go at all. The first steps are very interesting. It’s a new knowledge, a new way of looking at life. I go the first steps with them. Not all the way, of course. Someone has to stay and take care of them. I am more of a gatekeeper, you might say. They are the travelers.”
The doctor talked to me about the boys. “The anger confused me at first. It hadn’t occurred to me to look there. There is much strength beneath it, and much willingness. It is a gift.”
The new stone was long. The ripples in the water made it look like the mouth was moving very slowly. “You see, he is still new. And he is very strong in his youth, stronger than you might think. Toward the end, he moved very quickly.”