The following is the forty-second of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is now in paperback, and available for *free* in various ebook formats including Kindle. The audiobook can be found at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
Adam reached Hiroshi at the phone number he’d kept in his address book since their days in Berkeley, and they met a few hours later in Hiroshi’s office at Tokyo University. On the door was a polished brass plate inscribed “Dr. Hiroshi Shinohara.” From a crystal vase on his desk a tall slender lily reached for the last rays of morning sun that streamed through a window.
“You got your Ph.D. I see,” Adam nodded toward the brass plate with a wide smile. “Congratulations.”
“The work we did in Berkeley was part of it. I have a copy of my dissertation for you.”
Hiroshi showed him to the room he’d reserved for him in lodgings the University maintained for visiting scholars. “I hope you can stay long enough to renew our collaboration,” Hiroshi said.
“My math has gotten a little rusty, but sure!”
“Tomorrow. Today, I’ll show you the city. You’ve come a few weeks late for the cherry blossoms; still, there are other flowers, less celebrated but no less enchanting.”
The first thing Adam did was take his film to a photo shop. Later, in a restaurant over a flask of hot sake, he told Hiroshi about his quest, using the prints to illustrate what he’d encountered.
His travelogue was interrupted by the arrival of a steamed fish and a second flask of sake. Hiroshi ceremoniously extracted the fish’s upward-facing eyeball and presented it to Adam on the tips of his chopsticks. Screwing up his courage, Adam swallowed it with the eerie expectation that he would now come under surveillance from within.
When the table had been cleared, Adam, without speaking a word, laid out two rows of photos, ten to a row. One row consisted of faces manifesting dignity; the other of faces that seemed to lack it. He set them before Hiroshi without comment.
Hiroshi’s face mirrored what he was seeing; once or twice he seemed to flinch.
“I see,” he said at last.
“What do you see?”
“I see man as he can be and man as he is—included and excluded. You must show your photographs to others.”
That night in bed, Adam found himself thinking about the monoliths on Easter Island. The effect of dozens of faces, side-by-side, was to multiply their mysterious power many times over. Similar to the effect of the Somali photos at Princeton, but with the added impact of repetition, as in the silk screens of Andy Warhol, and aurally, in the musical compositions of Philip Glass.
He imagined an exhibit juxtaposing faces of dignity with faces of indignity. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep, he turned on the light to write in his journal. An hour later, his exhilaration had subsided, and he turned off the light. Alone in the dark, questions crept in. Nighttime was a time of doubt for him, but he knew from experience that dawn often renewed his faith.
He woke the next morning with a fresh idea: Just let people react. Don’t try to persuade them. Proselytizing doesn’t work. It was enough to show people the images—as he had done with Hiroshi—stand back, and let them react as they would. Emerson was right: The proper goal was provocation, not instruction. People could like or dislike the photos; they could like or dislike him. Either way, they would be face to face with dignity, and the anguish of its absence.
After a week with Hiroshi, Adam took a nonstop flight to New York. On the plane, shuffling through all his photographs, he realized that Hiroshi had seen something in them that he himself had missed. Hiroshi had detected subtle signs of indomitability in the faces of indignity, and hints of vulnerability in the faces of dignity. This complicated the picture, but by allowing for change, it provided hope that dignity might eventually take root even where it was now lacking.
Somewhere on the great circle route high over the Bering Sea, the plane crossed the International Date Line, and Wednesday became Tuesday.
His mother and Rowan were in the apartment to welcome him home. Adam sat with them for as long as he could keep his eyes open; then, with the promise of a full report the next day, he headed for the guest room. Before he got into bed, he snipped off the baobab bracelet Ousmane had given him. The talisman had seen him through his quest.
The next day, Adam showed his parents his photos. Rowan asked him if he’d thought of writing about his journey, but before he could answer, Easter raised the question of finishing college.
Adam had seen it coming, and asked her for time to think about it. Rowan, ever the peacemaker, suggested that for certain colleges that required a senior thesis, Adam could probably submit an illustrated account of his around-the-world trip for credit toward a degree.
Adam thought about the five notebooks that lay at the bottom of his backpack, and thanked Rowan for his suggestion. His mother offered to come up with a list of colleges that gave credit for experiential learning, and he saw a way to make her happy without submitting to the lockstep of graduation requirements.
With confrontation avoided, the conversation moved on to Marisol. Rowan and Easter had gone to the ballet whenever she danced a new role, they told Adam, and evidently she was on her way to the stardom that Sasha had foreseen.
“Does she know I’m back?”
“I called her after you’d gone to bed,” Rowan said. “She’s dying to see you.”
The next day, Adam was up before sunrise, his body clock in some foreign time zone. He let himself out and took a long walk in Riverside Park. He chanced upon a feral cat, looking cold, damp, and hungry, but it wouldn’t let him get near it. He settled for taking a photo from twenty feet off, wondering if someday, dignity might be extended to animals.
Back at the apartment, but too restless to read or write, in midafternoon he joined Rowan for a few laps around the reservoir in Central Park. He was so out of shape from months of traveling he had to struggle to keep up with his father.
When they got back, dripping sweat, there was a message from Marisol on the answering machine. In a voice higher and more excited than either of them had ever heard it, she said,
“Dad, Adam, I’m on tonight. Giselle. The lead sprained her knee. I’ve been rehearsing all day. There’ll be four comps at Will Call. Mom’s on her way down from Boston. See you all after the show. Welcome back, Ad!”
“Injuries are a dancer’s worst enemy but an understudy’s best friend,” Rowan noted as he, Easter, and Adam left for the show. Shortly after they took their seats on the left orchestra, Rowan spotted Sara on the other side. He went over to greet her, and then returned to his seat between Easter and Adam.
The conductor struck up the overture, and the curtain rose above a village on the Rhine. Adam immediately recognized Prince Albrecht as the same Sasha from Leningrad who, in real life, had often come on to his sister.
In the ballet, the peasant girl Giselle dies, but, in the name of love, she comes back as a ghost to save the two-timing prince from an evil queen. As Marisol danced, Adam imagined that she was forgiving him for not standing up for their love when it had collided with a taboo. She’d been ready to fight for what they had, but he’d been unwilling to go against convention. By the time the curtain fell, he understood what Lahiri had meant when he’d said his love for his wife “reached beyond the grave.”
Audiences adore an understudy who exceeds expectations. Not only does it make up for the disappointment of having a known performer replaced by a novice, but there’s also the excitement of being present at the birth of a star. The audience, on their feet, summoned Marisol for one curtain call after another. It was a coronation.
After she changed, Marisol, pale and exhausted, clung to Adam. Rowan, Easter, and Sara were waiting at the stage door, and greeted her with hugs and flowers. Rowan had thought they might walk to the Russian Tea Room, but when he saw Marisol, he hailed a taxi.
“Actually, Dad, I’m not feeling up to supper tonight,” Marisol said. “I think I’d better go home and lie down.”
“Okay, Marisol,” Rowan said. “We’re all so proud of you. We’ll celebrate Sunday. See your sister safely home, Adam.”
“Sorry to be a party-pooper. Thank you for the lilies, Easter. Mom, thanks for taking me to all those ballet classes way back when.”
“You did the work,” Sara said, giving her daughter a hug and patting her on the back. “Tonight, you gave me something I thought I’d lost forever.”
“Dad, if you hadn’t taken me to Moscow this couldn’t have happened. And Ad, thank you for coming home just in time.”
As their taxi left Lincoln Center, brother and sister caught a glimpse of the fountain on the plaza where they’d innocently fallen in love eighteen months before.
“Let’s meet there tomorrow noon,” Adam said. “I’ll take you to lunch after company class.”
“That’s where my life changed. I’m sorry I’ve had such a hard time letting go.”
“I envy your bravery. You’re true to yourself. And you were true to me.”
Adam walked her to her door, and kissed her on both cheeks.
“Till tomorrow,” Marisol said.
“I’ll be waiting.”
By eleven-thirty Adam was at Lincoln Center keeping an eye out for Marisol. A few intrepid pigeons had inched toward his feet, and after studying them for a while he took out his camera to get some close-ups.
Sirens were blaring, but they were so common in New York that he didn’t look up until he saw an ambulance stop in front of the plaza. Moments later, paramedics were wheeling a gurney past the fountain.
Something made him stand up, and he found himself following the medics. A guard stopped him at the door to the building where company class was held, and he had to stand on his toes to see inside. The paramedics were strapping a dancer to the gurney. Sunlight dancing off her hair told him it was Marisol.
As they lifted the gurney into the ambulance, he demanded to know where they were taking his sister. One of the medics yelled out “Cornell Med Center,” and the ambulance sped away, siren blaring. Adam ran to a phone booth and called Rowan. While he yelled into the receiver, he used his free hand to flag a cab. Forty-five minutes later, he was waiting in Cornell’s emergency room when Rowan ran up.
Eventually, a doctor emerged and called out Adam’s name. Drawing the two men aside he told them that steps were being taken to stabilize Ms. Ellway’s condition, and that evidently she was suffering from severe dehydration and fatigue, probably exacerbated by flu.
Adam guessed that Marisol had gone straight to bed without eating, and then skipped breakfast to make company class. She’d been caught with dangerously low blood sugar, and collapsed.
Adam declined Rowan’s invitation to join him for lunch; he wanted to be alone, and after a change of clothes, left for Central Park.
After he’d circled the reservoir twice he stopped, sat down, and took off his shoes and socks. An angry blister had formed on one heel; he felt he deserved the pain. Marisol had borne the brunt of their separation, alone, while he had traveled the globe. What if she had died? The idea of it made him vow to do whatever it took to help her back to health. Let her be okay, he bargained with fate, and he’d see to it that she got on her feet, and onto the world stage.
In the last year, he’d learned something about love, from his mother and both his fathers. He’d learned from Élodie, from Ben and Hiroshi, and from Ousmane, Lahiri, and Malika. Most of all, he’d learned about love from Marisol herself.
He couldn’t follow his heart, but it showed him where he must go. In the nameless faces he’d captured on film, he’d found something he wanted to show the world.
Barefoot and sore, he limped back to Rowan’s apartment. Looking south, he could see the silhouette of the World Trade Center. He imagined gigantic images hanging on the sides of the twin towers: faces of dignity on one tower, faces of indignity on the other. Show people the difference, he thought, and let them choose.