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Dear John


This is one of a series of alternate endings to the Henry James short story The Beast in the Jungle. John Marcher, the protagonist, lives with, “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen,” and he shares this secret about his fate only with May Bartram, a woman he meets in his youth. Together they wait for John’s event until their old age…


Dear John,

I apologize for not writing sooner. Despite having come here to recover, to rest, my time, rather than expanding to meet the space offered by my leisure, has contracted, has folded around me like another warm blanket drawn taut by another eager caregiver. Convalescence, like disease, progresses at its will and those that would assist the progression of my convalescence seem never to be assisting me. So I have waited for my time to return to me the way one waits for an errant child–with a sense of possession but not an accompanying sense good will.

Lately, I have been allowed to take walks and if my walking always to this church on the hill is seen as an act of faith by some, I know better. I am not here to believe; I left to London my illness and my belief. I am not here, either, to test the limits of my disbelief, or, even, to understand doubt and hope as irreconcilable polarities that one must embrace in a poetic dichotomy between which one finds what was hovering there all along: the shape of a life. It is just that this church is quiet and here, where my presence demands no more attention than any other, is a room where I can write. Here I am reminded of one chill fall day at the Tate when we sat all afternoon in a room full of 17th century Dutch paintings, pictures of churches that appeared cold and white and made of bone—more like the ribcage of some long dead whale than the house of god. Not that I had then or have now a vision of the house of god, a standard against which to test other spaces, but I know that inside the belly of the whale the point is not what lays above or beyond. What painting swallows it makes discrete, contingent on having clear ends—a frame with which to mark its bounds. This church does not disappoint; it is the very model of a Pieter Saenredam.

In front and to my right, a man recites the Hail Mary; the words are inaudible and fall gently. His face and body are round and he passes, one by one between slick fingers, the beads of his rosary. Not wanting to call attention to myself I sit facing straight ahead, but like a passenger on a train intent on speaking to his neighbor, this man faces the aisle. The last person I heard speak greeted me when I came in. “Are you here for the wedding?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” I said, an unsure statement rather than the clever one the man’s smile seemed to assume. Now I wonder of everyone that walks by if they are here for the wedding or for the church, dividing strangers into categories marked celebratory and searching—the attitudes I imagine best fitting their purpose. An older couple walks arm in arm down the center aisle to my left and I pretend I am watching them marry, momentarily investing myself in a narrative of their happiness. As the woman walks by me I see a brown bundle in her hand spotted with grease and feel myself grow critical of her choice of adornment on this, the most important day of her life.

For a church, the scale is paramount; this is the sublime, after all, built to order. I should feel the thrill of its greatness, but everything is too clear, too well rendered in its neat scale of warm grays to really frighten. The distinction between close and far is irrelevant among all this crenulated precision, all this surface without atmosphere. Red carnations are the sole break from marble and stone—there are no shafts of warm light in which souls could rise or dust could pool. No matter, I have already said this is not about belief. I am not waiting for god and I am not, anymore, waiting for you.

Do you ever wonder why you chose me to wait? Not at Weatherend, I was your confessor already then, but when we first met—young and in Naples. That choice compelled; I understood myself to be your audience and unable to make a disinterested study, I made you, instead, my interest—I was interested in you. If you had bothered to wonder why you chose me, you would have wondered what, as it were, you chose.

Love, in its comedy of particularities, its disruption and disturbance and demand—at times volatile, at times common—produces an actinic light by which our fates, in becoming not fully our own, remain, as yet, unsealed. When I promised to watch you, then, I promised also to love you. In doing so I saved you. Your indifference to this maintained itself in the face of disquieting signs that love is far from trivial. I save you no longer. Now that my belief is gone the real truth about you may spring. When I have gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain—

May Bartram


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