The Fall of a Sparrow A Novel

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  • Copyright: 1999-07-06
  • Publisher: Scribner
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Robert Hellenga, bestselling author ofThe Sixteen Pleasures,once again reveals his profound understanding of the strength and resilience of the human spirit in a compelling and masterful novel.Alan Woodhull ("Woody"), a classics professor at a small Midwestern college, finds himself convinced that life has taught him all the lessons he has to learn: After the tragic death of his beloved oldest daughter during a terrorist bombing in Italy seven years ago, his wife has left him and his two remaining daughters have grown up and moved away. Yet his decision to attend the trial of the terrorists and to return to the scene of the tragedy marks the beginning of a new life and the awakening of a new love.

Author Biography

Robert Hellenga received his B.A. from the University of Michigan and studied at Queen's University in Belfast and the University of North Carolina before completing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University. He is a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of the bestselling novel The Sixteen Pleasures.

Table of Contents


Part One

The Mountain of Lights
In Memoriam
Sunday Morning
Christmas 1986
Power Suit
The Ring of Gyges
House for Sale

Part Two

Christmas 1987
Mr. Jelly Roll Baker
La Vita Nuova
Children of the Sun
A Dark Cimmerian Land
My Love Is Carpet
In Another Country


Chapter 1: The Mountain of Lights

On Friday, August 15, 1980 -- Assumption Day, the middle of the August holidays -- a bomb exploded in the train station in Bologna, Italy, killing eighty-six people, including my sister Cookie, who was sitting in the second-class waiting room, about two meters from where the bomb went off, waiting for a train back to Rome.

The station has been repaired, of course, but part of it -- part of the waiting room -- was left the way it had been after the bombing. You can see the bomb crater, which is about the size of a bowling ball. I didn't see it myself till years later, but I often imagined it. Daddy had a picture, a poster, rolled up in a cardboard mailing tube at the back of his closet. On the wall above the crater a marble stone, alapide,lists the names and ages of all the people who were killed. Cookie was twenty-two. She was on her way to study international law at the University of Bologna. We thought she was in Rome, staying with friends, but she'd gone up to Bologna for a couple of days to look for a place to live.

I was sixteen years old at the time, and Ludi was twelve.

The bomb went off at 10:25 in the morning. That's 4:25 in the morning in Illinois. We were all asleep.

Before breakfast that morning Ludi and I took our books and walked up to the cemetery to wait for trains, not knowing that Cookie was already dead, or close to it. Pretty soon the Illinois Zephyr came by from Quincy -- it ran an hour later on Saturdays -- and about half an hour after that we saw four freight trains coming together on the two sets of tracks that cross about halfway between our house and New Cameron. The Burlington tracks go over, of course, and the Santa Fe tracks go under, but it was exciting anyway, because for a while it looked as if all the trains were going to collide.

Our house was a quarter of a mile from the crossing, and at night, lying in bed, you could feel the house tremble when a train went by, and when the windows were open you could make out the different sounds of the different cars, boxcars and gondolas and flatbeds; and you could hear the whistles blowing as far away as Cass City, on the Spoon River, where Daddy used to go duck hunting with Peter Abbott from the Biology Department; and you could hear the engines switching in the hump yard in St. Clair, three miles away, and the loudspeakers blurting out instructions to the engineers. Overnight guests sometimes said they couldn't sleep; but the sounds had become such a part of our lives, like the sound of Daddy playing his guitar at night, that we didn't hear them till we went away, and thenwecouldn't get to sleep.

I don't remember what book I was reading, but Ludi was reading Italo Calvino'sItalian Folktales.She couldn't get enough of those folktales, every one of which began with a king and three daughters. The two older daughters were always mean and ugly, but guess what? -- the youngest was always beautiful and smart and wonderful. We read for about an hour and saw a few more trains, and when we went back down Mama and Daddy were up and around, but we still didn't know about Cookie. After supper Daddy was readingThe Lord of the Ringsout loud to Ludi and me. He used to say that he'd readThe Lord of the Ringsaloud three times, once for each of his three daughters; but that wasn't quite true, because he didn't finish it the third time, which was for Ludi. We were getting close to the end, though. Frodo and Sam had climbed up Mount Doom, followed by Gollum, and Frodo and Gollum were teetering on the edge of the crater when the phone rang. Ludi had been upset by the death of Thorin Oakenshield inThe Hobbitand Daddy'd promised her that no one really important dies inThe Lord of the Rings.But things were not looking good for Frodo, and Ludi was nervous, and when the phone rang she started to cry "You promised."

It was Allison Mirsadiqi an old friend of Daddy's, calling from Rome to tell Daddy about thestrage,which is Italian for massacre or slaughter. She was worried because Cookie had called on Friday morning to say she'd found an apartment and would be back that afternoon. Allison had spoken to an official at the city hall in Bologna. Cookie's name hadn't been on the list of dead or injured, but a lot of bodies hadn't been identified, and over two hundred people had been injured. Everything was in chaos.

Daddy was saying uh-huh, uh-huh on the phone in the upstairs hallway and shouting for Mama to get on the phone down in the kitchen, and Ludi was still crying "You promised." I'd heard the story before, of course, and I knew that Frodo wasn't going to fall into Mount Doom, and I kept telling Ludi that everything was going to be all right.

Daddy spent the rest of the evening on the phone, and the next morning, Saturday morning, he and Mama flew to Milan and didn't come back till the beginning of September -- classes had already started at St. Clair College, where my grandmother had gone to school and where Daddy taught Latin and Greek -- because Mama had some kind of breakdown and had to stay in the hospital in Italy.

I couldn't remember a time when the house hadn't been full of students and faculty on Friday nights, reading naughty poems aloud in Latin, or putting on Greek plays, or just singing and making lots of noise to celebrate the end of the week; I couldn't remember a time when Daddy hadn't made pizza on Saturday nights; I couldn't remember a time when Mama and Daddy hadn't made love on Sunday mornings, staying in bed till ten or eleven o'clock; I couldn't remember a time when Daddy hadn't told us a story and played his guitar for us every night, or a time when he hadn't been working on his book on the early Greek philosophers, which he was going to callThe Cosmological Fragments.

But when they came back from Italy Mama needed to rest a lot, so we didn't have anyone over. In the evenings she stayed in her study and read her Bible and religious books that Father Davis from Corpus Christi gave her. She tried to get us to read them too: C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Father Ronald Knox. On Sunday mornings we started going to mass at Corpus Christi. Mama sang in the choir and went to see Father Davis two or three times a week, and helped him organize a novena, a series of prayer meetings at our house every Friday night for nine weeks in a row. Ludi and I didn't have to get down on our knees and say our prayers out loud, though Mama said it would make our grandparents happy in heaven, and Cookie too; but we had to come into the living room and let Father Davis put his hands on our heads and bless us; and then we had to pass around the plates of cookies that the women took turns bringing. And Mama ordered a tombstone for Cookie that saidLa sua voluntade è nostra paceon it -- His will is our peace. Daddy went to mass for a while, and he fixed supper for Father Davis once a week and drove him home if he'd had too much to drink; and he drank coffee with the people from Corpus and St. Pat's who came to the novena. But he wouldn't go along with the inscription for the tombstone. "It's a cliché, Hannah; it's the one line from theParadisothat everybody knows because it's one of Matthew Arnold's touchstones."

"When something's a cliché there's usually a good reason for it."

Ludi and I, sitting at the top of the back stairway, could hear them in the kitchen, and I can remember how sick I felt, because I'd never heard them quarreling before, not like this.

"What kind of God would will a bomb to go off in a crowded railway station?"

"That's not what it says, Woody. Read the line. Please read it aloud to me."

But Daddy wouldn't read the line aloud, and pretty soon Mama stumbled up the back stairs, walking right past Ludi and me without seeing us.

In January Mama took a job at a Catholic girls' school run by an order of Ursuline nuns, in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. The Latin teacher had resigned. Mama found a little studio apartment in River Forest -- cheaper than Oak Park -- and took the Illinois Zephyr home on weekends, which worked out OK, but to get back to Chicago she had to take the 8:00 train on Sunday morning, so she had to stop singing in the choir. She made us promise to keep going to mass, but by Thanksgiving the novelty had worn off. Ludi was the first to drop out. She simply refused to go. Then Daddy stopped. He said he liked theidea,but that his body started twitching when he thought about going. So he drove me in to Corpus on Sunday mornings. He'd go to his office at the college to do a little work and then pick me up afterwards. Maybe I lasted a little longer than the others because I'd gone to bed with Aaron Gridley, Cookie's old boyfriend, while Mama and Daddy were in Italy, and I was afraid...I'm not sure what I was afraidof,but when I finally went to confession and told Father Davis that I'd committed the sin of unchastity, he asked me if I was truly sorry, and I said no, not really, and that was that. I don't think he heard me, or else he was thinking of something else. I didn't say my ten Hail Marys; I just walked out of the church and sat on the steps till Daddy drove up in his truck with the dogs in the back and we drove back to the farm. That's what we called home -- "the farm."

It wasn't so simple, though, because Iwassorry too. Not sorry that I'd doneit,but sorry that I'd doneitright after Cookie died, doneitwhile Mama was in a hospital in Italy, thinking she was Mary Magdalene, sorry that Daddy and I couldn't go up to his study and have one of our grown-up talks aboutit,and about everything else too. But by the time I was ready to talk it was too late. Mama was already gone, and Daddy had already told Mr. Steckley at the Steckley Monument Company that he wouldn't pay for the stone unless they sanded off the inscription, which they did, even though the sanding cost more than the stone itself.

For years I've tried to imagine that time in my parents' lives, that month in Italy. I was hungry for facts, for details. I looked through a guidebook of Bologna that Daddy brought back and got a sense of the city -- a circle, described by the old medieval wall, with spokes radiating out from the center. If I close my eyes I can see my parents in front of the bombed-out station.

Allison Mirsadiqi -- Cookie had been staying with Allison -- has driven up from Rome to meet them. Allison, the first grown-up who ever asked me to call her by her first name, was Daddy's girlfriend when she was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, and later on she married an Iranian businessman she met on a train from Rome to Naples. She went to St. Clair as an undergraduate, and now she's an important trustee of the college.

I located everything on the map, which was sort of a cross between an aerial photo and a perspective drawing, as if you were looking down on the red roofs of the city. I located the Ospedale Maggiore, where Cookie died, and the morgue where they took her body for an autopsy, and the Policlinico Sant'Orsola, where Mama was hospitalized. I studied the map as if it held an explanation, but I never found what I was looking for.

Daddy always said that at the heart of everything -- religions, countries, families -- you'd find not doctrines or philosophical propositions but stories, that stories took you as close as you could get to the heart of things. As far as he was concerned, the greatest storyteller of all was Homer, and he was always threatening to read theOdysseyand theIliadto us, but as far as we were concerned the greatest storyteller of all was Daddy himself, and we always wanted him totellus stories, not read them out of a book. It wasn't till I was in high school and began to read grown-up books on my own that I realized what had happened. Daddy hadn't made up his stories at all; he'd stolen them. From Dickens and Jane Austen and from Homer too. And he'd changed them. In Daddy's versions my sisters and I were always in the stories. Three little girls. Sometimes one of us would be the main character, and sometimes we'd just be minor characters going along for the ride: in Polyphemus's cave with Odysseus; swimming down with Beowulf to the bottom of the mere where Grendel's mother lived; going into Humbaba's sacred forest with Gilgamesh and Enkidu; packed off to Salem House with David Copperfield in Mr. Barkis's cart; a few extra sisters in a Jane Austen family; in the belly of the whale with Jonah; hiding in the bushes at the sacrifice of Isaac. But even as minor characters we would usually play a crucial role: one of us would suggest the "nobody" trick to Odysseus, or tell Abraham to look in the bushes for the ram, or warn Elizabeth Bennet about Lady Catherine de Bourgh. When I readPride and Prejudicefor the first time I didn't even recognize the name because I'd always heard Daddy pronounce it so that it rhymed with "crow." But when I readCombrayin my French class at St. Clair I recognized Marcel, except that in Proust he was a little boy instead of a little girl, and he didn't have any sisters.

I reminded Daddy of Marcel as we were driving back from Grinnell College on Interstate 80. We'd taken Ludi down -- or sideways if you look at a map -- for her freshman orientation. That was at the end of August 1986, six years after the bombing. Daddy'd wanted to take Ludi and me out to dinner in Grinnell, which is a town of about a thousand people, plus the college, but Ludi just wanted us to go so she could be on her own, so we left early. Daddy said that at the heart ofeveryfamily there's a story like Marcel's, and I knew that he was thinking about Cookie, and about that month in Bologna. I asked him whatever happened to Marcel, or Marcelle, as she was called in Daddy's version; but he didn't know. He'd tried to readRemembrance of Things Pastthree or four times, but he never got pastSwann's Way.

Daddy was a man who cried easily, even before it became fashionable. "Well," he'd say, when he'd pulled himself together, "Beowulf cried when he said good-bye to Hrothgar, and Achilles cried when Patroclus died, and Sir Launcelot..." He had a whole list. And he could makeuscry by singing "Danny Boy" or "Just Before the Battle, Mother" or "The Poor Lonesome Cowboy." When we took Argos, our German shepherd, to the vet to have him put down, I was on the edge of tears, but Daddy was so far over the edge it was embarrassing. He'd just had a hernia operation so Mama had to carry poor old Argos downstairs -- he couldn't even stand up the last day -- and hold him on her lap in the truck. Ludi and I rode in the back. I thought Daddy wasn't going to be able to drive, and in the vet's office I tried to pretend I didn't know him. But I never saw him cry after Cookie's death. I thought about that when we read Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" in my English Lit. class. Professor Arnold said that the last two lines were a blemish on an OK poem, a decline into sentimentality, and when she read them aloud they did sound a little silly. But Daddy said that the little bump in the rhythm at the beginning of the last line knocked out the sentimentality, and that anyone who read the lines aloud paying attention to the rhythm wouldfeeltheir strength, and whenheread it aloud, not really accenting any syllable between "thoughts" and "lie," I could hear what he meant:

To me the meanest flower that blows

Can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

When we got home from Grinnell after taking Ludi to school, I opened the pocket door that separates the living room from the dining room -- Ludi had it closed to keep Laska, our other dog, out of the dining room, where she'd been working on one of her projects -- and a bat fell out of the crack. There's a colony in the attic, and sometimes when it gets too hot they crawl back into the walls and get turned around. They follow the air currents to the opening in the pocket door. I can't stand them and got Daddy to nail a little strip of wood over the opening, but then you couldn't close the door. Ludi was an animal lover and didn't care one way or the other, though she wouldn't let Daddy kill them with his badminton racquet, so when she wanted to close the door she took down the strip of wood. The bat must have been taken by surprise when I pulled the door open, because it dropped straight down, almost to the floor, and then flew in a straight line right into the dining room closet, where it smashed into the wall. Daddy found it in a Waterford crystal tumbler. He dumped it in the sack of garbage under the sink and washed out the tumbler, but I never wanted to drink out of those tumblers again.

That wasmylast week at home too. I was going to Chicago to look for a job. Daddy and I had found an apartment for me in Hyde Park with three roommates, students at the University of Chicago, so I had a place to stay; but I was feeling like a failure. Scared of the future. After four years of college -- I'd gone to St. Clair -- I didn't know what to do. I didn't have a clue. No one had recruited me; I wasn't on a track that was leading anywhere; I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And I was thinking about Daddy living all alone for the first time in almost thirty years. And Mama all alone too in her little room in her little studio apartment where the bed -- two mattresses, one on top of the other -- doubled as the couch. Nothing could convince me thatshecould be happy. Ludi was gone, and I knew now that I'd never be able to understand Cookie's death; it didn't make any more sense than the death of the bat, smashing into the wall. I was starting to think of it as a test, a test that we had failed. I don't mean that I thought that God was testing us, the way he tested Job. Just that it was a challenge, and that instead of rallying, or pulling together, or loving, each other more, we'd allowed ourselves to be pulled apart. We hadn't been strong enough. We'd had all the love in the world, and it hadn't been strong enough to hold us together. But that night after I'd gone to bed, Daddy came into my room and sat down on the edge of the bed the way he used to and told me a story the way he used to.

I closed my eyes and let the words wash over me, like the waves on the beach up in Grand Mere, Michigan, where we rented a cottage one summer.

"Once upon a time," Daddy began, "there were three little girls named Cordelia and Seremonda and Duva."

All our stories began this way, with three little girls in a village with a schoolhouse, and a churchyard, and the baker's great stone oven, and of course the great highways that bound together east and west, north and south. On our adventures we always set out on the north-south highway, north to the mountains or south to the sea. The east-west highway was more mysterious, more metaphysical, I suppose. If you went west you came to rolling, meadows and fertile valleys that led to the ancient city where the king held his court. The road was kept in good repair, and every now and then some of the villagers -- either to seek their fortunes or to escape from sickness and trouble -- would pack up their belongings and set out for the city, never to be seen again. But the highway that led to the east disappeared into a dense forest and was impassable.

I turned over and Daddy tickled my arm the way he used to do when I was a little girl. He used to say he needed an extra hand for the three of us. But now he needed only one hand, and soon he wouldn't need any.

There was a river on the eastern border, and the remains of the bridge that once spanned it. The villagers were afraid to go that far into the forest, and no one went any farther, not even the three little girls. There was a mountain in the east, too. You couldn't see it from the village itself, because of the forest, but you could see it from the churchyard, which was on a high hill. It was cold and white even in summer, and on holy days at night you could see little lights, like fireflies, where the top of the mountain should have been, just like the mysterious lights we could see up in the cemetery at night, except those turned out to be car headlights, high school kids parking along the edge of the moraine.

Daddy said he wasn't sure what they were. The schoolmastersaid they were only shooting stars in the sky beyond the mountain, but the priest said they were fairy lights dancing on the mountain itself The villagers were divided, but there was no way of settling the question because there was no longer any traffic on the eastern highway.

"No one ever ventured eastwards," Daddy said; "they never even thought of it." He paused."Except,"he went on, "no one ever ventured eastwardsexceptthe wandering minstrels andjongleurswho came out of the forest in the fall, dressed like wild animals, bound for the west."

When we were little we always used to interrupt with questions, but that night I was too tired and sad, so I just lay quiet.

Years ago, when Ludi was only a baby, we all took the train into Chicago to see Maurice Jenkins' popular one-man enactment of the Pied Piper of Hamelin at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Mr. Jenkins, who was a friend of Daddy's, hopped and skipped around like Danny Kaye and played a pear-shaped German lute. Cookie was the first to join in, even though she was almost fourteen, and then I couldn't resist the strange medieval music. We danced three times around the rows of folding chairs, and when we disappeared through a narrow curtain at the rear of the hall, it was Cookie who went back into the main room to explain to the audience that the other children had gone to live under the mountain and would not be coming back. I knew at the time that this was what Daddy was remembering, but it wasn't till years later that I realized that this was the story he had told Mama when she was in the hospital in Bologna on the night that Cookie died. It's just a story, I tell myself now. But it's a story within a story, one of the stories within the story of Cookie's death, which is itself a story within the story of our family, just as the story of our family is a story within the larger stories of the Woodhull clan (Daddy's family) and the Clifford clan (my mother's family), and of St. Clair College, and of the town of St. Clair, of Harrison County, of the state of Illinois, of the United States, of the Northern Hemisphere, of Christendom, of the world, and so on. Concentric rings of stories till you get to the story of the universe itself I used to think that the bigger stories explained the smaller ones, that the bigger rings gave meaning to the rings that they enclosed, but now I think it's the other way around, and that each story illuminates and gives meaning to the larger story of which it is apart, till you get to the farthest ring, the primum mobile, and even beyond, where the universe folds in upon itself and there's nothing left to illuminate, nothing left to give meaningto.

Copyright © 1998 by Robert Hellenga

Excerpted from The Fall of a Sparrow: A Novel by Robert R. Hellenga
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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