Mount Terminus

A Novel

David Grand

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

PART I
DARKNESS
 
 
 
No one knew where the spring on Mount Terminus originated. They could only conjecture from the warmth of its waters that the aquifer lay deep underground, near the hearth of the Earth. Jacob sounded out for Bloom the hiss and groan he would hear when the vapors rose and expanded into the pipes of their new home. He spoke of flowering gardens and bulky vegetable patches, the scents of citrus groves and the perfume of trees canopied in mentholated leaves, of a narrow promontory pointing like a finger over an ancient seabed to a distant shore, and he said to his son, Please, my dear, tell me you want to see it.
 
Bloom wanted to say, No, I don’t want to see it. I want to go home.

But he said, instead, Yes, of course, Father, I want to see it all.

For this kindness, Jacob thanked his son, and thanked him again; he bent over and squeezed Bloom tight, pressed his cheek against the stiff collar of his shirt, and, for several moments too long, held him there.

Father and son dwelled in the comfort of prolonged silences thereafter. They listened to the clatter of rails beat the rhythm of their progress across the prairies. On the Sabbath, Jacob covered his head and adorned his shoulders in a prayer shawl. He kindled the light, blessed the wine, the bread. The young Bloom tried to invent an image of the place his father had described, but his thoughts returned to the familiar surface of Woodhaven’s lake mirroring the rise of its valley and its sky, and he recalled memories of his mother standing in profile before a succession of windows.

In the expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, he awoke from a dream in which he saw just such an ephemeral image, and he called out to his mother, at which time Jacob gently reminded him she was no longer with them. While passing the painted archways of the Sonoran Desert, Bloom wondered aloud how it was possible she could have died so young, and the elder Rosenbloom, who appeared at a loss to answer Bloom, drew for his son an illustration of a heart in its anatomical intricacy, and pointed to its various chambers to better show him how the muscle in his mother’s chest had ceased to function.
Jacob asked the boy if he now comprehended the cause, and Bloom said he did, but, in truth, he didn’t, and even if he had, neither his father’s scientific reason nor the warm touch of his hand would come to fill the desert air with moisture. It wouldn’t soften the stark light of its sun. It wouldn’t curtail the boy’s expectations of seeing his mother’s silhouette materialize in the shadows of their berth.

The train thundered through tunnels and canyon passes, whispered along the outer edges of mountains. When they turned southwest from Mojave into the sierra, they joined the path of a river Bloom mistook for a stream. The thin, lazy current delivered them from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains onto the great basin. Here the air of their compartment warmed with the scent of orange blossoms and the stench of industry. Opposite the river, foundry stacks disgorged black smoke, wisps of which swept northward on a pulsating breeze, over the flat tops of brick buildings whose uneven lines foregrounded the range. The mountains, the city, their combined measure, the immensity of their weight, the boy felt in his chest, and more so than before, he wanted to retrace the rail lines east so that so he might once again feel the balance of Woodhaven’s valley, watch the August rains thrash its lake, meander the damp trails of its hills, but they had come this far and Bloom knew his father wouldn’t be persuaded to turn back.

For reasons the boy couldn’t understand, Jacob was determined to reside here, as if he had been commanded to do so by God. Go forth. Go forth to the desolate end of the world.

There, said his father when the train began to slow, there, ahead, is our new beginning.

A golden dome cast an amber glow onto a sprawling platform where a multitude of hat brims shone with the intensity of small suns. They shadowed the rough-hewn faces of men; they shadowed the softer, rounder features of women. At the center of the throng, in the most luminous point of the dome’s light, were three figures, tall and broad, all approximately the same height and build, standing shoulder to shoulder, dressed identically, wearing in the heat of the afternoon black mackintoshes and black bowler hats, black gloves, black boots, the collective garments so dark they appeared to absorb all the light within their sphere. Bloom was moved to remark what a strange sight the dark triumvirate was, but the boy’s attention had been arrested by the void they formed in the crowd. Before he could turn to make his father aware of the phenomenon, and turn back, the figures had vanished.

What was it? Jacob asked.

Nothing, said Bloom, nothing at all.

The elder Rosenbloom hired a porter to cart their trunks through the station’s rotunda to the exit, where, at the curb, they hired an open carriage. They moved through unpaved streets whose grit caught in their teeth and coated the front of their mourning clothes in granite residue. As they proceeded through the city’s crosscurrents of streets and avenues, Bloom watched his father’s grave profile flash in and out of darkened storefront windows, and when the density of the city center opened onto a series of empty squares whose fountains were dry, whose lawns were balding, Jacob said it would be some hours yet before they reached Mount Terminus.

In their new life, he told his son, they would live apart from the world at large. Apart from the assembly of men. Outside the reach of their influence. Beyond the boundaries of trivial concerns.

On the outskirts of town, they rode past small adobe homes shadowed by the lattices of oil derricks. Children scrambled around barrels and beds of tar, kicked up scythes of dust which drifted over the road and settled onto the browned backs of a chain gang hauling sledgehammers and casks of water. The hunched figures formed a slow procession behind a sheriff whose denim jacket and pant legs were embroidered with lightning bolts. Soon Bloom and his father passed no one at all. The coachman, a blue-eyed mestizo with pitted skin and a thick, crooked nose, tried to make conversation with Jacob, but the driver spoke little English and neither Bloom nor his father spoke any Spanish. The driver occasionally pointed to faraway places off the empty road, to the burned husk of a hacienda through the gates of a dead ranchero, and tried to explain an incident involving his cousin and his uncle and a woman who stepped between them, but the story was lost to the grind of the carriage’s wheels and the driver’s rapid flights into Spanish. No matter, he said with a shake of the head when the elder Rosenbloom apologized for not understanding. No matter.

They turned onto the mountain just as the glare of the sun had fallen to meet their eyes; they rode into the canyon’s shadows and switched back and forth over its trail’s rutted curves; the higher they scaled the grade, the more the vistas widened, the wider the ancient seabed expanded in diagonal rows of trees. They directed Bloom’s sight to the distant shore, to the north, where the folding range was mantled in bramble, olive and drab, for as far as he could see.

For as far as he could see, there was emptiness. No homes. No people. No vestiges of civilization past or present. When they reached a series of escalating plateaus stepping up to the mountain’s peak, they stopped at a blackened gate, beyond which was land so bright with color, in these barren wastes it seemed implausible it should exist. The father contrived a smile for the boy and told the driver to drive on; with a jolt, the horse kicked past the perimeter, up a long gravel path bisecting two garden mazes whose hedgerows were overgrown with tendrils of bougainvillea. The tall windbreak framed the front of the villa, its fading yellow walls, its thatched roof layered in terra-cotta. Overshadowing the roof’s ridges rose a tower, at its vertex a columned portico warmed by saffron light.

Upon noticing the day’s wane, Jacob told the driver to stop. He paid the man his fee and asked him to leave the trunks at the villa’s front door. Jacob then took hold of Bloom’s hand, and together, father and son walked along the edge of the garden maze to an empty field. Blond grass swept at the boy’s knees and the father’s shins all the way to the leveled acreage of the grove, where they were met by a sickly odor, of fruit moldering in heaps at the cephalopod roots of trees. Their sleeves covering their noses, they continued on to a long stand of eucalyptus, at which a hill descended to a large empty plot of land aswirl in dust; and here they turned onto the eroded earth at their property’s end, to the promontory pointing to the sea, less like a finger than the bow of a ship. The headland jutted out over a deep ravine, at whose precipice Jacob stood and stared into the bruised light of the setting sun, and with his eyes filled with its gloaming he seemed to be contemplating the oncoming darkness. For the time it took the spectrum of colors to submerge into the ocean’s depths, he said nothing; and when all that was left was some violet sediment on the horizon, the father touched his son’s cheek with his finger and said how very sorry he was for the fate that had befallen them. He wished he could revisit their past and amend it. For Bloom’s sake, he wished he were a different man.

Bloom looked to his father to better understand what had altered his mood; in the dim light, Jacob’s dark Semitic features were difficult to read, but the boy could see the elder Rosenbloom’s eyes were no longer cast toward the horizon; rather, they were fixed on a turn along the mountain road beyond the gorge; and when Bloom followed his father’s gaze he saw three silhouettes of men astride three horses.

What is it? asked the boy. What do you see?

Nothing, said his father. An illusion. A trick of the light. But the elder Rosenbloom’s voice sounded uncertain. He turned his head to Mount Terminus’s peak, and Bloom turned with him. Like a fog arriving from the sea, stars had already begun to cluster through the moonless sky, and upon seeing this, Jacob made Bloom promise that when he became a man and fell in love, he would protect his love better than Jacob had protected his.

*   *   *

The Rosenblooms were conceived somewhere on the other side of the world. In a country whose name they didn’t know. To mothers and fathers who were most likely dead. Those who told them about their origin could say with any certainty only that they had been carried by many caretakers to a port on the shore of the Adriatic Sea, where they were placed on a ship and into the arms of an old rabbi and his wife, who bundled Bloom’s father together with his mother and her twin sister in a bread basket. Each child, so far as the rabbi and his wife knew, had yet to be named. From the story of Joseph, the rabbi called the boy Jacob; the sisters, the rabbi’s wife called Rachel and Leah, and they passed down to each of them their family name. When the ship landed, the elderly couple claimed them as their grandchildren. To the gatekeeper, the old man swore on the scrolls of the Torah cradled in his arms that they had been borne by his two daughters, both of whom, he said, had died in childbirth. Because they were too old and poor to parent the children themselves, the rabbi and his wife carried Jacob, Rachel, and Leah to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on the lower east end of the city, where they lived for many years.

*   *   *

The three infants had grown so accustomed to sleeping with one another over the course of their long journey, the two girls and the boy wouldn’t be separated at night without a great disturbance upsetting the nursery. Their new guardians allowed them to sleep together in the same crib until they were two, then moved them to the same bed until they were five, at which time they required them to reside in separate wings, but the children met every day between lessons to play in the courtyard, and without fail, they sat side by side when they dined. So Jacob wouldn’t be lonely at night, the girls cut pieces from the ribbons holding back the thick curls of their hair, and they pinned the shiny material to the lapel of his jacket, and each night before curfew they placed into his pockets notes inscribed with wishes he was meant to read before the dormitory lights were extinguished. The girls longed for things all children long for: sweets and toys and pets. They desired, too, things only orphans desire: a mother and a father, a room in which to sit alone, for silence lasting days and nights with no end. Jacob never made such wishes, as he had only one, of such great importance that he never dared write it down or articulate it.

His only wish was to remain with Rachel and Leah.

To never be apart from them.

To be reunited with them in his bed.

*   *   *

Anyone who had eyes could see in what ways the twins would blossom into great beauties. At the age of nine, they already comported themselves with the poise of young women, and on their own initiative they endeavored to refine their characters so they might better resemble the figures living in the novels they read at night under the glow of streetlamps hanging outside their dormitory windows. Leah taught herself to sing and play the spinet; Rachel taught herself how to draw and paint; their eyes, in turn, retained a hopeful glimmer, and projected an intellect neither sharp nor oppressive.

On Saturday afternoons, they walked with their sister orphans to the long meadow in the park, where, instead of running wild with the others, they presented themselves for public view at the edge of the promenade. There they watched the men and women of privilege stroll by, evaluated their faces as they passed, read into them what goodness they believed they were capable of. On one such Saturday, the identical sisters, dressed in their identical dresses, attracted the attention of an unaccompanied woman who, on her approach, saw them point her out of the crowd, then watched them lift a dandelion to their lips, and blow away the downy tuft in her direction.

What, the woman asked, had they wished for?

The girls said they had wished she would stop and talk with them.

Why? asked the woman.

And they told her why.

And what more would you wish for if I handed you all the dandelions in the world?

And they listed all the wishes they had written in the notes they had slipped into Jacob’s pockets. The following day, they were invited to visit the woman’s home. And off they went, and never returned. Without so much as a final note to wish Jacob well, they were gone, and would remain estranged from him for almost a dozen years.

*   *   *

To dull the loneliness Jacob felt in Rachel and Leah’s absence, he immersed himself in his studies, and he discovered one day in the Asylum’s library the writings of the Cambridge scryer, John Dee. He grew increasingly fascinated by Dee’s pursuit to devise a numeric code in which one could see the pure verities that underlay the visible world. He dreamed of a universe in which it was possible to prove there was a mystical unity in all creation, and marveled over the thought of an obsidian mirror that the old scholar acquired from a soldier who claimed Aztec priests had found within it the angels of God.

For two years, Jacob spent his free time absorbed by the principals of optics he’d discovered in Dee’s writings, in the drawings of Goethe, the treatises of Newton, and when his enthusiasm for this field was brought to the attention of one of the orphanage’s trustees, he was introduced to a man named Jonah Liebeskind, an inventor and craftsman, who made his living shaping lenses for cameras and naval telescopes. Mr. Liebeskind was a fastidious bachelor who saw the smallest imperfections in all things. In objects. In architecture. In the manners of men. In the appearance of women. His intention, he would one day explain to Jacob, was not to be unkind by pointing out the deficits in people and the objects they created, he simply could not tolerate mediocrity.

He said to Jacob the afternoon they met that if he was willing to work hard and do everything in his power to live up to his standards, if he was willing to pledge to him his diligence, and promise he would attempt to rise above his circumstances, he would make Jacob his apprentice.

To this, Jacob agreed.

In return, he was given a room of his own in Mr. Liebeskind’s splendid home, a key to the garden, a pair of coveralls to be worn in the machine shop, a new suit to be worn on days they made their deliveries, an additional suit, even more refined, to be worn to shul on the high holidays, to the theater, where they would spend each Sabbath eve, to the museum, where they would spend each Sabbath day studying art, and always to dinner.

Mr. Liebeskind was fond of saying, We will not be unseemly Jews. We will not look or speak like men spawned from the gutter. We will rise above. He settled for nothing less. Sartorial perfection. Clean hands. Buffed nails. Hair groomed. Shoes shined. Posture erect. Words pronounced without guttural inflection. Manners. Always manners. Always serving the aesthetics of grace. Jacob adopted Mr. Liebeskind’s regimen. A small sacrifice to make for a room of his own and for the opportunity to handle such beautiful tools. In a night and a day, the upright Mr. Liebeskind transformed him from an unkempt boy into a pristine little man, and in ten years’ time, all the while playing his role accordingly, Jacob absorbed everything Mr. Liebeskind imparted to him. He learned from him all there was to know about the properties of glass and shaping lenses, the mechanisms of photographic equipment, the physical nature of light, the internal workings of reflecting telescopes. His mentor had an impeccable eye for painting and believed there was no reason why he and Jacob, with a forthright application of ingenuity, couldn’t, one day, craft lenses and mechanisms that would make it possible for the photographers to whom they sold their equipment to be as great as Hals and Van Dyck. Tiepolo. Poussin. Guardi. He dreamed of traveling abroad like a proper gentleman, to meet with other opticians, to research their methods of shaping lenses, but they were always too consumed with work to take time for a holiday.

With Mr. Liebeskind’s permission, Jacob dissected the early projection and viewing devices his mentor had acquired over his lifetime; the components of his magic lanterns, the spinning carousel of his zoetropes, the synchronized disks of his phenakistoscope, the mandalas of his Wheel of Life; and with the little money he earned from Mr. Liebeskind, he bought materials with which he re-created, from designs he’d seen illustrated in the journal Phantasmagoria, an electrotachyscope and a phasmatrope. In this same journal, he read one night before bedtime an article about Thomas Edison’s search for a method by which he might deliver clear and consistent images on his Kinetoscope. Jacob visited the patent office to study the blueprints of Edison’s motion picture viewer, and saw in the drawings that the flaw wasn’t, as Edison claimed, with the width and length and tensile strength of the celluloid, or, for that matter, with the placement of perforations along the film’s edge, but rather with the rate at which each framed image moved past the device’s aperture. The instant Jacob looked at it, he saw the wondrous flaw, and in the instant that followed, its remedy occurred to him as if it were handed down from heaven by the angels of God the Aztec priests witnessed in Dee’s obsidian stone.

He spent the next year constituting Edison’s Kinetoscope, reengineering its system of feeds and loops, sprockets and pulleys, and when it was completed, he added to it a singular item, deceptively simple: a timing mechanism—not unlike what one might find inside a common pocket watch—that would make it possible to deliver however many frames of film per second one desired to the viewing piece of any motion picture device. In keeping with his character, the evening after he observed the successful operation of Jacob’s invention, Jonah Liebeskind—as if he had recognized at that moment that he was on the cusp of declining into the middling state of mediocrity he so abhorred—died peacefully in his sleep, leaving not the slightest indication on his face that he’d struggled to stay alive.

To Jacob, who had proved himself over the years a devoted acolyte, Mr. Liebeskind willed his splendid home, his machine shop, his tools, his collection of optical devices, and the type of small fortune a fastidious bachelor accumulates after so many years of hard work without holidays. And once again, Jacob found himself alone, without friends or companions, better off only in riches.

With a small portion of the money left to him by his mentor, Jacob bought a suit more refined than the suit he wore to shul on the high holidays, and, dressed in this new ensemble, he traveled to West Orange to see Edison, who, after studying the patent for Jacob’s timing mechanism, had agreed to sit for a demonstration. When presenting his invention to the great man, Jacob said, See, sir, see how simple and elegant. And he showed how simply and elegantly his invention rotated the device’s shutter as it intermittently halted and reengaged the scrolling film, how it left just the right length of slack for the sprockets of Edison’s Kinetoscope to move the frames of celluloid past the aperture, to create for the eye fluid imagery. And at this sight, Edison remarked, Now, why hadn’t I thought of that?

Jacob sold Edison the rights to use what he would come to call the Rosenbloom Drive for a modest royalty, and he reserved the privilege of being the sole manufacturer and distributor of the mechanism. Jacob’s modest riches wouldn’t yet accrue into a fortune, but they would soon thereafter, when, several years later, a former associate of Mr. Edison’s, a Mr. W.K.L. Dickson, who had been impressed by the young Rosenbloom’s ingenuity, sought Jacob out in his deceased mentor’s machine shop, and presented to him a new challenge: to build a mechanical system that would allow a projection device to cast a life-size image of a continuous action of prolonged duration. At present, because of the fussy internal configuration and limited capacity of Edison’s Kinetoscope, only the shortest of moving pictures could be observed—of the most minuscule physical gestures, of the most meager displays of human nature—and they could only be seen by stooping over a box and squinting into a hole. Mr. Dickson placed in Jacob’s hands a design for an apparatus he called a Phantoscope, and Jacob, again, after a short period of study, saw—as if God had breathed the solution into his mind—what Mr. Dickson and his colleagues could not. He set forth his terms—a greater royalty than the one he asked of Edison and the right to be the sole manufacturer of whatever moving parts he invented—and Mr. Dickson agreed.

In a few months’ time, Jacob built for him a mechanism more complex, but equally as elegant as the one he had built for Edison: a labyrinth of rolling roundabouts and reversals, metallic passages, clips and levers, all of which fed and guided a length of film on a wayward journey from one magazine up top to another below, with each frame of film stopping intermittently in front of the projector’s condenser lens and light source. This device he named the Rosenbloom Loop, which included in its design the Rosenbloom Drive. When Mr. Dickson saw in what an ingenious manner Jacob had made it possible to roll over as many feet of film that could be scrolled into the two magazines, and that the images they produced were larger than life, Dickson, who was not nearly as arrogant or prideful a man as Edison, said, Now, I would have never thought of that.

At which time, Jacob’s modest riches began to transform into lasting wealth.

*   *   *

In Jonah Liebeskind’s former machine shop, Jacob manufactured his mechanisms, and continued to attend to Mr. Liebeskind’s longstanding clients. And as the old man’s regimen had served him well thus far, he continued it on his own. He dressed in coveralls when working in the machine shop; when making deliveries, he dressed in his delivery suit; for dinner he dressed in his finest attire. On Friday nights after Sabbath prayers, he sat for a theater performance, sometimes two; on Saturdays he perused the wings of the museum. For many years he kept to these routines, and in doing so began to inhabit the character of his deceased mentor. More and more he resembled the fastidious bachelor whose work left him no time for holidays. And then, one Sabbath afternoon, a dozen years after he had watched Rachel and Leah slip away through the narrow opening of the Asylum’s doors, an event he had long ago stopped hoping for befell him. On a bench in the museum, a sketch pad on her lap, a nub of charcoal in her hand, Rachel sat, drawing, re-creating in her own style Tiepolo’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. There she was, the same little girl, now grown into the woman she had once pretended to be.

Jacob watched for a long while, well aware as he observed her in what ways he had become a man she wouldn’t recognize, so precise and regimented, tailored and mannered, manicured, as upright as a soldier. For so long now, the boy she was familiar with had long since vacated his body. Even if he wanted to, he knew he wouldn’t be able to summon him back. He rounded the stone bench on which she sat and continued to stare at her. He regarded with wonderment the movement of her hand and the shape of her lines, the curve of her wrist, and as soon as he formed her name on his lips, tears welled in his eyes. He thought for a moment that he should walk on and hide his face, but she sensed his presence and turned to see him crying in the silent manner he sometimes cried as a child, and upon seeing him this way, she recognized him.

Jacob? she said. Is it you? Is it really you?

That she knew his face without a moment’s hesitation left him unable to speak.

My dear, dear, Jacob, she said. It’s Rachel.

Yes, I know, he said. Of course, I know. How could I not?

And now, her eyes, too, filled with tears. They fell from the soft bulb of her chin and ran rivulets through the pitch, down the arm of the virgin mother, over the lines forming the newborn’s head. He sat beside her and took her hand, and for a long time they remained there, silent, expressing their awe with searching looks, looking at each other with immense curiosity, imagining in their recollection of each other how they must have appeared in the intervening years. After a long while, she expressed her regret for not having said goodbye to him the day they departed the orphanage. She said how often she’d thought of Jacob, described in what ways she continued to feel his absence as if he were a phantom limb. She told him she had returned to the Asylum after she and Leah had settled into their new lives. She had hoped to find him there, but he had already moved on, and, she thought, perhaps he was angry with her for having been so selfish and unfeeling, angry enough to have irreversibly broken the bond they shared. That she sat beside him now, Jacob told her, was all that mattered. And they continued to study each other until she no longer saw the boy she once knew and began to apprehend what he had become. Touching the corners of his eyes with her charcoaled fingers, she said, Look at you. So young, yet so old. She could intuit how alone he had been. She could see in the lines that had begun to prematurely form on his face at what an unnatural rate he had grown into a man, and she promised him in that instant, We will never be apart again.

Copyright 2014 David Grand