The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  I went down the back steps and out the basement door, then over to Commons—its red brick facade flat as a stage backdrop against the empty sky—and called Henry from the pay phone. No answer. No answer at the twins’, either.

  Commons was deserted except for a couple of haggard old janitors and the red-wigged lady who sat at the switchboard and knitted all weekend, paying no attention to the incoming calls. As usual, the lights were blinking frantically and she had her back to them, as oblivious as that ill-omened wireless operator on the Californian the night the Titanic went down. I walked past her down the hall to the vending machines, where I got a cup of watery instant coffee before going down to try the phone again. Still no answer.

  I hung up and wandered back to the deserted common room, with a copy of an alumni magazine I’d found in the post office tucked under my arm, and sat in a chair by the window to drink my coffee.

  Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty. The alumni magazine was depressing. Hampden graduates never seemed to do anything after they got out of school but start little ceramics shops in Nantucket or join ashrams in Nepal. I tossed it aside and stared blankly out the window. The light outside was very strange. Something about it intensified the green of the lawn so all that vast expanse seemed unnatural, luminous somehow, and not quite of this world. An American flag, stark and lonely against the violet sky, whipped back and forth on the brass flagpole.

  I sat and stared at it for a minute and then, suddenly, unable to bear it a moment longer, I put on my coat and started out towards the ravine.

  The woods were deathly still, more forbidding than I had ever seen them—green and black and stagnant, dark with the smells of mud and rot. There was no wind; not a bird sang, not a leaf stirred. The dogwood blossoms were poised, white and surreal and still against the darkening sky, the heavy air.

  I began to hurry, twigs cracking beneath my feet and my own hoarse breath loud in my ears, and before long the path emerged into the clearing. I stood there, half-panting, and it was a moment or so before I realized that nobody was there.

  The ravine lay to the left—raw, treacherous, a deep plunge to the rocks below. Careful not to get too near the edge, I walked to the side for a closer look. Everything was absolutely still. I turned again, towards the woods from which I had just come.

  Then, to my immense surprise, there was a soft rustle and Charles’s head rose up out of nowhere. “Hi!” he called, in a glad whisper. “What in the world—?”

  “Shut up,” said an abrupt voice, and a moment later Henry materialized as if by magic, stepping towards me from the underbrush.

  I was speechless, agog. He blinked at me, irritated, and was about to speak when there was a sudden crackle of branches and I turned in amazement just in time to see Camilla, clad in khaki trousers, clambering down the trunk of a tree.

  “What’s going on?” I heard Francis say, somewhere very close. “Can I have a cigarette now?”

  Henry didn’t answer. “What are you doing here?” he said in a very annoyed tone of voice.

  “There’s a party today.”


  “A party. He’s there now.” I paused. “He’s not going to come.”

  “See, I told you,” said Francis, aggrieved, stepping gingerly from the brush and wiping his hands. Characteristically, he was not dressed for the occasion and had on sort of a nice suit. “Nobody listens to me. I said we should have left an hour ago.”

  “How do you know he’s at the party?” said Henry.

  “He left a note. In the library.”

  “Let’s go home,” said Charles, wiping a muddy smudge off his cheek with the heel of his hand.

  Henry wasn’t paying any attention to him. “Damn,” he said, and shook his head quickly, like a dog shaking off water. “I’d so hoped we’d be able to get it over with.”

  There was a long pause.

  “I’m hungry,” said Charles.

  “Starving,” Camilla said absently, and then her eyes widened. “Oh, no.”

  “What is it?” said everyone at once.

  “Dinner. Tonight’s Sunday. He’s coming to our house for dinner tonight.”

  There was a gloomy silence.

  “I never thought about it,” Charles said. “Not once.”

  “I didn’t either,” said Camilla. “And we don’t have a thing to eat at home.”

  “We’ll have to stop at the grocery store on the way back.”

  “What can we get?”

  “I don’t know. Something quick.”

  “I can’t believe you two,” Henry said crossly. “I reminded you of this last night.”

  “But we forgot,” said the twins, in simultaneous despair.

  “How could you?”

  “Well, if you wake up intending to murder someone at two o’clock, you hardly think what you’re going to feed the corpse for dinner.”

  “Asparagus is in season,” said Francis helpfully.

  “Yes, but do they have it at the Food King?”

  Henry sighed and started off towards the woods.

  “Where are you going?” Charles said in alarm.

  “I’m going to dig up a couple of ferns. Then we can leave.”

  “Oh, let’s just forget about it,” said Francis, lighting a cigarette and tossing away the match. “Nobody’s going to see us.”

  Henry turned around. “Somebody might. If they do, I certainly want to have an excuse for having been here. And pick up that match,” he said sourly to Francis, who blew out a cloud of smoke and glared at him.

  It was getting darker by the minute and cold, too. I buttoned my jacket and sat on a damp rock that overlooked the ravine, staring at the muddy, leaf-clogged rill that trickled below and half-listening to the twins argue about what they were going to make for dinner. Francis leaned against a tree, smoking. After a while he put out the cigarette on the sole of his shoe and came over to sit beside me.

  Minutes passed. The sky was so overcast it was almost purple. A wind swayed through a luminous clump of birches on the opposite bank, and I shivered. The twins were arguing monotonously. Whenever they were in moods like this—disturbed, upset—they tended to sound like Heckle and Jeckle.

  All of a sudden Henry emerged from the woods in a flurry of underbrush, wiping his dirt-caked hands on his trousers. “Somebody’s coming,” he said quietly.

  The twins stopped talking and blinked at him.

  “What?” said Charles.

  “Around the back way. Listen.”

  We were quiet, looking at each other. A chilly breeze rustled through the woods and a gust of white dogwood petals blew into the clearing.

  “I don’t hear anything,” Francis said.

  Henry put a finger to his lips. The five of us stood poised, waiting, for a moment longer. I took a breath, and was about to speak when all of a sudden I did hear something.

  Footsteps, the crackle of branches. We looked at one another. Henry bit his lip and glanced quickly around. The ravine was bare, no place to hide, no way for the rest of us to run across the clearing and into the woods without making a lot of noise. He was about to say something when all of a sudden there was a crash of bushes, very near, and he stepped out of the clearing between two trees, like someone ducking into a doorway on a city street.

  The rest of us, stranded in the open, looked at each other and then at Henry—thirty feet away, safe at the shady margin of the wood. He waved at us impatiently. I heard the sudden crunch of footsteps on gravel and, hardly aware of what I was doing, turned away spasmodically and pretended to inspect the trunk of a nearby tree.

  The footsteps approached. Prickles rising on the nape of my neck, I bent to scrutinize the tree trunk more closely: silvery bark, cool to the touch, ants marching out of a fissure in a glittering black thread.

  Then—almost before I noticed it—they stopped, very near my back.

  I glanced up and saw Charles. He was staring straight ahead with a ghastly expression on his face and I was on the
verge of asking him what was the matter when, with a sick, incredulous rush of disbelief, I heard Bunny’s voice directly behind me.

  “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said briskly. “What’s this? Meeting of the Nature Club?”

  I turned. It was Bunny, all right, all six-foot-three of him, looming up behind me in a tremendous yellow rain slicker that came almost to his ankles.

  There was an awful silence.

  “Hi, Bun,” said Camilla faintly.

  “Hi yourself.” He had a bottle of beer—a Rolling Rock, funny I remember that—and he turned it up and took a long, gurgling pull. “Phew,” he said. “You people sure do a lot of sneaking around in the woods these days. You know,” he said, poking me in the ribs, “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you.”

  The abrupt, booming immediacy of his presence was too much for me to take. I stared at him, dazed, as he drank again, as he lowered the bottle, as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand; he was standing so close I could feel the heaviness of his rich, beery breaths.

  “Aaah,” he said, raking the hair back from his eyes, and belched. “So what’s the story, deerslayers? You all just felt like coming out here to study the vegetation?”

  There was a rustle and a slight, deprecating cough from the direction of the woods.

  “Well, not exactly,” said a cool voice.

  Bunny turned, startled—I did, too—just in time to see Henry step out of the shadows.

  He came forward and regarded Bunny pleasantly. He was holding a garden trowel and his hands were black with mud. “Hello,” he said. “This is quite a surprise.”

  Bunny gave him a long, hard look. “Jesus,” he said. “What you doing, burying the dead?”

  Henry smiled. “Actually, it’s very lucky you happened by.”

  “This some kind of convention?”

  “Why, yes,” said Henry agreeably, after a pause. “I suppose one might call it that.”

  “One might,” said Bunny mockingly.

  Henry bit his lower lip. “Yes,” he said, in all seriousness. “One might. Though it’s not the term I would use myself.”

  Everything was very still. From somewhere far away, in the woods, I heard the faint, inane laughter of a woodpecker.

  “Tell me,” Bunny said, and I thought I detected for the first time a note of suspicion. “Just what the Sam Hill are you guys doing out here anyway?”

  The woods were silent, not a sound.

  Henry smiled. “Why, looking for new ferns,” he said, and took a step towards him.


  Dionysus [is] the Master of Illusions, who could make a vine grow out of a ship’s plank, and in general enable his votaries to see the world as the world’s not.

  —E. R. DODDS,

  The Greeks and the Irrational



  JUST FOR THE record, I do not consider myself an evil person (though how like a killer that makes me sound!). Whenever I read about murders in the news I am struck by the dogged, almost touching assurance with which interstate stranglers, needle-happy pediatricians, the depraved and guilty of all descriptions fail to recognize the evil in themselves; feel compelled, even, to assert a kind of spurious decency. “Basically I am a very good person.” This from the latest serial killer—destined for the chair, they say—who, with incarnadine axe, recently dispatched half a dozen registered nurses in Texas. I have followed his case with interest in the papers.

  But while I have never considered myself a very good person, neither can I bring myself to believe that I am a spectacularly bad one. Perhaps it’s simply impossible to think of oneself in such a way, our Texan friend being a case in point. What we did was terrible, but still I don’t think any of us were bad, exactly; chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry’s, too much Greek prose composition—whatever you like.

  I don’t know. I suppose I should have had a better idea of what I was letting myself in for. Still, the first murder—the farmer—seemed to have been so simple, a dropped stone falling to the lakebed with scarcely a ripple. The second one was also easy, at least at first, but I had no inkling how different it would be. What we took for a docile, ordinary weight (gentle plunk, swift rush to the bottom, dark waters closing over it without a trace) was in fact a depth charge, one that exploded quite without warning beneath the glassy surface, and the repercussions of which may not be entirely over, even now.

  Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei did a variety of experiments on the nature of falling bodies, dropping objects (so they say) from the Tower of Pisa in order to measure the rate of acceleration as they fell. His findings were as follows: That falling bodies acquire speed as they fall. That the farther a body falls, the faster it moves. That the velocity of a falling body equals the acceleration due to gravity multiplied by the time of the fall in seconds. In short, that given the variables in our case, our particular falling body was traveling at a speed greater than thirty-two feet per second when it hit the rocks below.

  You see, then, how quick it was. And it is impossible to slow down this film, to examine individual frames. I see now what I saw then, flashing by with the swift, deceptive ease of an accident: shower of gravel, windmilling arms, a hand that claws at a branch and misses. A barrage of frightened crows explodes from the underbrush, cawing and dark against the sky. Cut to Henry, stepping back from the edge. Then the film flaps up in the projector and the screen goes black. Consummatum est.

  If, lying in my bed at night, I find myself unwilling audience to this objectionable little documentary (it goes away when I open my eyes but always, when I close them, it resumes tirelessly at the very beginning), I marvel at how detached it is in viewpoint, eccentric in detail, largely devoid of emotional power. In that way it mirrors the remembered experience more closely than one might imagine. Time, and repeated screenings, have endowed the memory with a menace the original did not possess. I watched it all happen quite calmly—without fear, without pity, without anything but a kind of stunned curiosity—so that the impression of the event is burned indelibly upon my optic nerves, but oddly absent from my heart.

  It was many hours before I was cognizant of what we’d done; days (months? years?) before I began to comprehend the magnitude of it. I suppose we’d simply thought about it too much, talked of it too often, until the scheme ceased to be a thing of the imagination and took on a horrible life of its own.… Never once, in any immediate sense, did it occur to me that any of this was anything but a game. An air of unreality suffused even the most workaday details, as if we were plotting not the death of a friend but the itinerary of a fabulous trip that I, for one, never quite believed we’d ever really take.

  What is unthinkable is undoable. That is something that Julian used to say in our Greek class, and while I believe he said it in order to encourage us to be more rigorous in our mental habits, it has a certain perverse bearing on the matter at hand. The idea of murdering Bunny was horrific, impossible; nonetheless we dwelt on it incessantly, convinced ourselves there was no alternative, devised plans which seemed slightly improbable and ridiculous but which actually worked quite well when put to the test.… I don’t know. A month or two before, I would have been appalled at the idea of any murder at all. But that Sunday afternoon, as I actually stood watching one, it seemed the easiest thing in the world. How quickly he fell; how soon it was over.

  This part, for some reason, is difficult for me to write, largely because the topic is inextricably associated with too many nights like this one (sour stomach, wretched nerves, clock inching tediously from four to five). It is also discouraging, because I recognize attempts at analysis are largely useless. I don’t know why we did it. I’m not entirely sure that, circumstances demanding, we wouldn’t do it again. And if I’m sorry, in a way, that probably doesn’t make much difference.

  I am sorry, as well, to present such a sketchy and disappointing exegesis of what is in fact the central part of my story.
I have noticed that even the most garrulous and shameless of murderers are shy about recounting their crimes. A few months ago, in an airport bookstore, I picked up the autobiography of a notorious thrill killer and was disheartened to find it entirely bereft of lurid detail. At the points of greatest suspense (rainy night; deserted street; fingers closing around the lovely neck of Victim Number Four) it would suddenly, and not without some coyness, switch to some entirely unrelated matter. (Was the reader aware that an IQ test had been given him in prison? That his score had been gauged as being close to that of Jonas Salk?) By far the major portion of the book was devoted to spinsterish discourses on prison life—bad food, hijinks in the exercise yard, tedious little jailbird hobbies. It was a waste of five dollars.

  In a certain way, though, I know how my colleague feels. Not that everything “went black,” nothing of the sort; only that the event itself is cloudy because of some primitive, numbing effect that obscured it at the time; the same effect, I suppose, that enables panicked mothers to swim icy rivers, or rush into burning houses, for a child; the effect that occasionally allows a deeply bereaved person to make it through a funeral without a single tear. Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things—naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror—are too terrible to really ever grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself—quite to one’s surprise—in an entirely different world.

  When we got back to the car it had not begun to snow, but already the woods shrank beneath the sky, hushed and waiting, as if they could sense the weight of the ice that would be on them by nightfall.

  “Christ, look at this mud,” said Francis as we bounced through yet another pothole, brown spray striking the window with a thick rataplan.

  Henry shifted down into first.

  Another pothole, one that rattled the teeth in my head. As we tried to come out of it the tires whined, kicking up fresh splatters of mud, and we fell back into it with a jolt. Henry swore, and put the car in reverse.

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