Upon arriving from his travels abroad, he entered his stone-built farmhouse
on a summer's afternoon, leaving the luggage by the front door for his
housekeeper to manage. He then retreated into the library, where he sat quietly,
glad to be surrounded by his books and the familiarity of home. For almost two
months, he had been away, traveling by military train across India, by Royal
Navy ship to Australia, and then finally setting foot on the occupied shores of
postwar Japan. Going and returning, the same interminable routes had been
takenusually in the company of rowdy enlisted men, few of whom acknowledged the
elderly gentleman dining or sitting beside them (that slow-walking geriatric,
searching his pockets for a match he'd never find, chewing relentlessly on an
unlit Jamaican cigar). Only on the rare occasions when an informed officer might
announce his identity would the ruddy faces gaze with amazement, assessing him
in that moment: For while he used two canes, his body remained unbowed, and the
passing of years hadn't dimmed his keen gray eyes; his snow-white hair, thick
and long, like his beard, was combed straight back in the English fashion.
"Is that true? Are you really him?"
"I am afraid I still hold that distinction."
"You are Sherlock Holmes? No, I don't believe it."
"That is quite all right. I scarcely believe it myself."
But at last the journey was completed, though he found it difficult to summon the specifics of his days abroad. Instead, the whole vacationwhile filling him like a satisfying mealfelt unfathomable in hindsight, punctuated here and there by brief remembrances that soon became vague impressions and were invariably forgotten again. Even so, he had the immutable rooms of his farmhouse, the rituals of his orderly country life, the reliability of his apiarythese things required no vast, let alone meager, amount of recall; they had simply become ingrained during his decades of isolation. Then there were the bees he tended: The world continued to change, as did he, but they persisted nonetheless. And after his eyes closed and his breaths resonated, it would be a bee that welcomed him homea worker manifesting in his thoughts, finding him elsewhere, settling on his throat and stinging him.
Of course, when stung by a bee on the throat, he knew it was best to drink salt and water to prevent serious consequences. Naturally, the stinger should be pulled from the skin beforehand, preferably seconds after the poison's instantaneous release. In his forty-four years of beekeeping on the southern slope of the Sussex Downsliving between Seaford and Eastbourne, the closest village being the tiny Cuckmere Havenhe had received exactly 7,816 stings from worker bees (almost always on the hands or face, occasionally on the earlobes or the neck or the throat: the cause and subsequent effects of every single prick dutifully contemplated, and later recorded into one of the many notebook journals he kept in his attic study). These mildly painful experiences, over time, had led him to a variety of remedies, each depending on which parts of his body had been stung and the ultimate depth to which the stinger had gone: salt with cold water, soft soap mixed with salt, then half of a raw onion applied to the irritation; when in extreme discomfort, wet mud or clay sometimes did the trick, as long as it was reapplied hourly, until the swelling was no longer apparent; however, to cure the smart, and also prevent inflammation, dampened tobacco rubbed immediately into the skin seemed the most effective solution.
Yet nowwhile sitting inside the library and napping in his armchair beside the empty fireplacehe was panicked within his dreaming, unable to recall what needed to be done for this sudden sting upon his Adam's apple. He witnessed himself there, in his dream, standing upright among a stretching field of marigolds and clasping his neck with slender, arthritic fingers. Already the swelling had begun, bulging beneath his hands like a pronounced vein. A paralysis of fear overtook him, and he became stock-still as the swelling grew outward and inward (his fingers parted by the ballooning protuberance, his throat closing in on itself).
Excerpted from A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin Copyright © 2005 by Mitch Cullin. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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