The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  ALTHOUGH BUNNY hadn’t known many people at Hampden, it was such a small school that almost everyone had been aware of him in some way or other; people knew his name, knew him by sight, remembered the sound of his voice which was in many ways his most distinct feature of all. Odd, but even though I have a snapshot or two of Bunny it is not the face but the voice, the lost voice, which has stayed with me over the years—strident, garrulous, abnormally resonant, once heard it was not easily forgotten, and in those first days after his death the dining halls were strangely quiet without that great braying hee-haw of his echoing in its customary place by the milk machine.

  It was normal, then, that he should be missed, even mourned—for it’s a hard thing when someone dies at a school like Hampden, where we were all so isolated, and thrown so much together. But I was surprised at the wanton display of grief which spewed forth once his death became official. It seemed not only gratuitous, but rather shameful given the circumstances. No one had seemed very torn up by his disappearance, even in those grim final days when it seemed that the news when it came must certainly be bad; nor, in the public eye, had the search seemed much besides a massive inconvenience. But now, at news of his death, people were strangely frantic. Everyone, suddenly, had known him; everyone was deranged with grief; everyone was just going to have to try and get on as well as they could without him. “He would have wanted it that way.” That was a phrase I heard many times that week on the lips of people who had absolutely no idea what Bunny wanted; college officials, anonymous weepers, strangers who clutched and sobbed outside the dining halls; from the Board of Trustees, who, in a defensive and carefully worded statement, said that “in harmony with the unique spirit of Bunny Corcoran, as well as the humane and progressive ideals of Hampden College,” a large gift was being made in his name to the American Civil Liberties Union—an organization Bunny would certainly have abhorred, had he been aware of its existence.

  I really could go on for pages about all the public histrionics in the days after Bunny’s death. The flag flew at half-mast. The psychological counselors were on call twenty-four hours a day. A few oddballs from the Political Science department wore black armbands. There was an agitated flurry of tree plantings, memorial services, fund-raisers and concerts. A freshman girl attempted suicide—for entirely unrelated reasons—by eating poison berries from a bush outside the Music Building, but somehow this was all tied in with the general hysteria. Everyone wore sunglasses for days. Frank and Jud, taking as always the view that Life Must Go On, went around with their paint can collecting money for a Beer Blast to be held in Bunny’s memory. This was thought to be in bad taste by certain of the school officials, especially as Bunny’s death had brought to public attention the large number of alcohol-related functions at Hampden, but Frank and Jud were unmoved. “He would have wanted us to party,” they said sullenly, which certainly was not the case; but then again, the Student Services office lived in mortal fear of Frank and Jud. Their fathers were on the lifetime board of directors; Frank’s dad had donated money for a new library and Jud’s had built the science building; theory had it that the two of them were unexpellable, and a reprimand from the Dean of Studies was not going to stop them from doing anything they felt like doing. So the Beer Blast went on, and was just the sort of tasteless and incoherent event you might expect—but I am getting ahead of my story.

  Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petrie dish of melodrama and distortion. I remember well, for instance, the blind animal terror which ensued when some townie set off the civil defense sirens as a joke. Someone said it was a nuclear attack; TV and radio reception, never good there in the mountains, happened to be particularly bad that night, and in the ensuing stampede for the telephones the switchboard shorted out, plunging the school into a violent and almost unimaginable panic. Cars collided in the parking lot. People screamed, wept, gave away their possessions, huddled in small groups for comfort and warmth. Some hippies barricaded themselves in the Science Building, in the lone bomb shelter, and refused to let anyone in who didn’t know the words to “Sugar Magnolia.” Factions formed, leaders rose from the chaos. Though the world, in fact, was not destroyed, everyone had a marvelous time and people spoke fondly of the event for years afterward.

  Though not nearly so spectacular, this manifestation of grief for Bunny was in many ways a similar phenomenon—an affirmation of community, a formulaic expression of homage and dread. Learn by Doing is the motto of Hampden. People experienced a sense of invulnerability and well-being by attending rap sessions, outdoor flute concerts; enjoyed having an official excuse to compare nightmares or break down in public. In a certain sense it was simply play-acting but at Hampden, where creative expression was valued above all else, play-acting was itself a kind of work, and people went about their grief as seriously as small children will sometimes play quite grimly and without pleasure in make-believe offices and stores.

  The mourning of the hippies, in particular, had an almost anthropological significance. Bunny, in life, had been at almost perpetual war with them: the hippies contaminating the bathtub with tie-dye and playing their stereos loudly to annoy him; Bunny bombarding them with empty soda cans and calling Security whenever he thought they were smoking pot. Now that he was dead, they marked his passage to another plane in impersonal and almost tribal fashion—chanting, weaving mandalas, beating on drums, performing their own inscrutable and mysterious rites. Henry stopped to watch them at a distance, resting the ferrule of his umbrella on the toe of his khaki-gaitered shoe.

  “Is ‘mandala’ a Pali word?” I asked him.

  He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Sanskrit. Means ‘circle’.”

  “So this is some Hindu kind of thing?”

  “Not necessarily,” he said, looking the hippies up and down as if they were animals in a zoo. “They have come to be associated with Tantrism—mandalas, that is. Tantrism acted as a kind of corrupting influence upon the Indian Buddhist pantheon, though of course elements of it were assimilated into and restructured by the Buddhist tradition, until, by A.D. 800, say, Tantrism had an academic tradition of its own—a corrupt tradition, to my way of thinking, but a tradition nonetheless.” He paused, watching a girl with a tambourine twirling dizzily on the lawn. “But to answer your question,” he said, “I believe that the mandala actually has quite a respectable place in the history of Theravada, Buddhism proper. One finds their features in reliquary mounds on the Gangetic plain and elsewhere from as early as the first century A.D.”

  Reading back over this, I feel that in some respects I’ve done Bunny an injustice. People really did like him. No one had known him all that well but it was a strange feature of his personality that the less one actually knew him, the more one felt one did. Viewed from a distance, his character projected an impression of solidity and wholeness which was in fact as insubstantial as a hologram; up close, he was all motes and light, you could pass your hand right through him. If you stepped back far enough, however, the illusion would click in again and there he would be, bigger than life, squinting at you from behind his little glasses and raking back a dank lock of hair with one hand.

  A character like his disintegrates under analysis. It can only be defined by the anecdote, the chance encounter or the sentence overheard. People who had never once spoken to him suddenly remembered, with a pang of affection, having seen him throwing sticks to a dog or stealing tulips from a teacher’s garden. “He touched people’s lives,” said the college president, leaning forward to grip the podium with both his hands; and though he was to repeat the exact phrase, in the exact way, two months later at a memorial service for the freshman girl (who’d fared better with a single-edged razor blade than with the poison berries) it was, in Bunny’s case at least, strangely true.
He did touch people’s lives, the lives of strangers, in an entirely unanticipated way. It was they who really mourned him—or what they thought was him—with a grief that was no less sharp for not being intimate with its object.

  It was this unreality of character, this cartoonishness if you will, which was the secret of his appeal and what finally made his death so sad. Like any great comedian, he colored his environment wherever he went; in order to marvel at his constancy you wanted to see him in all sorts of alien situations: Bunny riding a camel, Bunny babysitting, Bunny in space. Now, in death, this constancy crystallized and became something else entirely: he was an old familiar jokester cast—with surprising effect—in the tragic role.

  When the snow finally melted it went as quickly as it had come. In twenty-four hours it was all gone except for some lovely shady patches in the woods—white-laced branches dripping rain holes in the crust—and the slushy gray piles at the roadside. Commons lawn stretched out wide and desolate like some Napoleonic battlefield: churned, sordid, roiled with footprints.

  It was a strange, fragmented time. In the days before the funeral none of us saw each other very much. The Corcorans had spirited Henry back to Connecticut with them; Cloke, who seemed to me close on the verge of a nervous breakdown, went uninvited to stay at Charles and Camilla’s, where he drank Grolsch beer by the six-pack and fell asleep on the couch with lighted cigarettes. I myself was encumbered with Judy Poovey and her friends Tracy and Beth. At mealtimes they came regularly to fetch me (“Richard,” Judy would say, reaching across the table to squeeze my hand, “you must eat”) and for the rest of the time I was captive to little activities they planned for me—drive-in movies and Mexican food, going to Tracy’s apartment for Margaritas and MTV. Though I didn’t mind the drive-ins, I did not care for the continual parade of nachos and tequila-based drinks. They were crazy about something called Kamikazes, and liked to dye their Margaritas a horrifying electric blue.

  Actually, I was often glad of their company. Despite her faults, Judy was a kindly soul, and she was so bossy and talkative that I felt oddly safe with her. Beth I disliked. She was a dancer, from Santa Fe, with a rubbery face and an idiotic giggle and dimples all over when she smiled. At Hampden she was thought something of a beauty but I loathed her lolloping, spaniel-like walk and her little-girl voice—very affected, it seemed to me—which degenerated frequently into a whine. She had also had a nervous breakdown or two, and sometimes, in repose, she got a kind of walleyed look that made me nervous. Tracy was great. She was pretty and Jewish, with a dazzling smile and a penchant for Mary Tyler Moore mannerisms like hugging herself or twirling around with her arms outstretched. The three of them smoked a lot, told long boring stories (“So, like, our plane just sat on the runway for five hours”) and talked about people I didn’t know. I, the absentminded bereaved, was free to stare peacefully out the window. But sometimes I grew tired of them, and if I complained of a headache or said I wanted to go to sleep, Tracy and Beth would disappear with prearranged swiftness and there I would be, alone with Judy. She meant well, I suppose, but the type of comfort she wished to offer did not much appeal to me and after ten or twenty minutes alone with her I was ready again for any amount of Margaritas and MTV at Tracy’s.

  Francis, alone of us all, was unencumbered and occasionally he stopped by to see me. Sometimes he found me alone; when he did not he would sit stiffly in my desk chair and pretend, Henrylike, to examine my Greek books until even dimwit Tracy got the hint and left. As soon as the door closed and he heard footsteps on the stairs he would shut the book on his finger and lean forward, agitated and blinking. Our main worry at the time was the autopsy Bunny’s family had requested; we were shocked when Henry, in Connecticut, got us word that one was in progress, by slipping away from the Corcorans’ house one afternoon to call Francis from a pay phone, under the flapping banners and striped awnings of a used-car lot, with a highway roaring in the background. He’d overheard Mrs. Corcoran tell Mr. Corcoran that it was all for the best, that otherwise (and Henry swore he’d heard this very distinctly) they’d never know for sure.

  Whatever else one may say about guilt, it certainly lends one diabolical powers of invention; and I spent two or three of the worst nights I had, then or ever, lying awake drunk with a horrible taste of tequila in my mouth and worrying about clothing filaments, fingerprints, strands of hair. All I knew about autopsies was what I had seen on reruns of “Quincy,” but somehow it never occurred to me that my information might be inaccurate because it came from a TV show. Didn’t they research these things carefully, have a consulting physician on the set? I sat up, turned on the lights; my mouth was stained a ghastly blue. When the drinks came up in the bathroom they were brilliant-hued, perfectly clear, a rush of vibrant acid turquoise the color of Ty-D-Bol.

  But Henry, free as he was to observe the Corcorans in their own habitat, soon figured out what was going on. Francis was so impatient with his happy news that he did not even wait for Tracy and Judy to leave the room but told me immediately, in sloppily inflected Greek, while sweet dopey Tracy wondered aloud at our wanting to keep up our schoolwork at a time like this.

  “Do not fear,” he said to me. “It is the mother. She is concerned with the dishonor of the son having to do with wine.”

  I did not understand what he meant. The form of “dishonor” () that he used also meant “loss of civil rights.” “Atimia?” I repeated.


  “But rights are for living men, not for the dead.”

  “Oiμ,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh, dear. No. No.”

  He cast about, snapping his fingers, while Judy and Tracy looked on in interest. It is harder to carry on a conversation in a dead language than you might think. “There has been much rumor,” he said at last. “The mother grieves. Not for her son,” he added hastily, when he saw I was about to speak, “for she is a wicked woman. Rather she grieves for the shame which has fallen on her house.”

  “What shame is this?”

  “Oivov,” he said impatiently. “. She seeks to show that his corpse does not hold wine” (and here he employed a very elegant and untranslatable metaphor: dregs in the empty wineskin of his body).

  “And why, pray tell, does she care?”

  “Because there is talk among the citizens. It is shameful for a young man to die while drunk.”

  This was true, about the talk at least. Mrs. Corcoran, who previously had put herself at the disposal of anyone who would listen, was angry at the unflattering position in which she now found herself. Early articles, which had depicted her as “well-dressed,” “striking,” the family “perfect,” had given way to snide and vaguely accusatory ones of the ilk of MOM SEZ: NOT MY KID. Though there was only a poor beer bottle to suggest the presence of alcohol, and no real evidence of drugs at all, psychologists on the evening news spoke of dysfunctional families, the phenomenon of denial, pointed out that addictive tendencies were often passed from parent to child. It was a hard blow. Mrs. Corcoran, leaving Hampden, walked through the crush of her old pals the reporters with her eyes averted and her teeth clenched in a brilliant hateful smile.

  Of course, it was unfair. From the news accounts one would have thought Bunny the most stereotypical of “substance abusers” or “troubled teens.” It did not matter a whit that everyone who knew him (including us: Bunny was no juvenile delinquent) denied this; no matter that the autopsy showed only a tiny percentage of blood alcohol and no drugs at all; no matter that he was not even a teenager: the rumors—wheeling vulture-like in the skies above his corpse—had finally descended and sunk in their claws for good. A paragraph which blandly stated the results of the autopsy appeared in the back of the Hampden Examiner. But in college folklore he is remembered as a stumbling teen inebriate; his beery ghost is still evoked in darkened rooms, for freshmen, along with the car-crash decapitees and the bobby soxer who hanged herself in Putnam attic and all the rest of the shadowy ranks of the Hampden dead.

  The fune
ral was set for Wednesday. On Monday morning I found two envelopes in my mailbox: one from Henry, the other from Julian. I opened Julian’s first. It was postmarked New York and was written hastily, in the red pen he used for correcting our Greek.

  Dear Richard—How very unhappy I am this morning, as I know I will be for many mornings to come. The news of our friend’s death has saddened me greatly. I do not know if you have tried to reach me, I have been away, I have not been well, I doubt if I shall return to Hampden until after the funeral–

  How sad it is to think that Wednesday will be the last time that we shall all be together. I hope this letter finds you well. It brings love.

  At the bottom were his initials.

  Henry’s letter, from Connecticut, was as stilted as a cryptogram from the western front.

  Dear Richard,

  I hope you are well. For several days I have been at the Corcorans’ house. Although I feel I am less comfort to them than they, in their bereavement, can recognize, they have allowed me to be of help to them in many small household matters.

  Mr. Corcoran has asked me to write to Bunny’s friends at school and extend an invitation to spend the night before the funeral at his house. I understand you will be put up in the basement. If you do not plan to attend, please telephone Mrs. Corcoran and let her know.

  I look forward to seeing you at the funeral if not, as I hope, before.

  There was no signature, but instead a tag from the Iliad, in Greek. It was from the eleventh book, when Odysseus, cut off from his friends, finds himself alone and on enemy territory:

  Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier;

  I have seen worse sights than this.

  I rode down to Connecticut with Francis. Though I’d expected the twins to come with us, instead they went a day earlier with Cloke—who, to everyone’s surprise, had received a personal invitation from Mrs. Corcoran herself. We had thought he would not be invited at all. After Sciola and Davenport caught him trying to leave town, Mrs. Corcoran had refused to even speak to him. (“She’s saving face,” said Francis.) At any rate, he’d got the personal invitation, and there had also been invitations—relayed through Henry—for Cloke’s friends Rooney Wynne and Bram Guernsey.

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