A Stones Fall

The Medieval period, and in particular the Dark Age, is often considered an ignorant time, especially with regard to superstition. But are we any less superstitious than the Medieval man? Our superstitions only rarely feature occult influences, it's true. Due to the association between superstition and the occult we are less able to recognize our own superstitions. In this paper I will demonstrate that superstition can be explained by the cognitive theory of denial. A superstition is merely a lie for our own comfort.

I step out of the stairwell into the crest of the tower and my skirt flares in the wind. I glance around. The eight encircling gargoyles have their winged backs to me. They are gentlemen, then. But one of them is postured differently, stooped far forward, hind legs barely gripping the masonry, one arm stretched out toward the street below. I walk over. The gargoyle might be grabbing or throwing, I'm not sure.

I peek over the parapet. They say this is where the boy fell. Or jumped, depending on who you ask. Thomas died on December 18th. I grasp hold of the gargoyle's leg for support, and lean over the side. It isn't hard to imagine how he died. He fell over one hundred twenty feet. Right into the neat boy-outline down below.

A gust of wind shoves me forward. Staring down, the outline stares back. My heart skips a beat and in my panic my hand slips. I flail, trying to grab something before it's too late. Pitch forward into empty sky. Fall head first. Grab the gargoyle's outstretched arm. Hands ripping down his forearm. I brace for a shock. Hits my shoulder. Jerk to a stop. I'm hanging by my left arm. My wrist is caught in the gargoyle's grasp, my hand is clenched around its wrist. It—he—stares pityingly.

My feet dangle for a bit before I recover my wits. Reach up and grab his claw with my right arm. Kick off my heels. Don't watch them fall. The wind howls at me, but I swing toward the wall. Barely hook the ledge with my toes. I'm still hanging out in the open, but at least some pressure is off my arms. Try to pull myself up a bit. Left arm is useless. My shoulder may be dislocated, but it doesn't hurt yet.

Starting to feel numb, have to act. Get closer to the wall, try to get more surface along the ledge. Kick off and pull hard, my head is level with the stone fist. Can't support my weight for long, grab the gargoyle's elbow with my weak arm. Hold on just long enough for the right arm to catch, before I slip. Hanging off the elbow I pull myself up again until I can wrap my thighs around his hand. I shimmy up the length of his arm. Use his cupped fingers as a foothold, his ear as a handhold. Finally I scramble onto the tower.

I suddenly feel colder than I've ever felt, like all my insides have been replaced with frigid air and I'm just a woman-shaped container. I can't stop shivering.

For a Medieval peasant reality was grim. Life expectancy was in the low forties[4]. No wonder, then, that it was comforting to think, “Satan cursed my harvest to die. But if my children are devout, they can avoid my fate.” Of course, there was no chance for social advancement, so a peasant's children will be no better off. This is mirrored in our society, where the comforting device is the American dream. “I didn't get the job because I've no college degree, but if my children are studious they can avoid my situation,” is the thought of many working parents. But a child born in the lowest quartile has only a seventeen percent chance of moving up a quartile[5].

“So, what is the yarn, Natalie?”

“I don't think this'll be the sensational story you want. From here the gargoyle doesn't look like it pushed the kid, at all. Maybe it could've done like an over-the-shoulder judo throw, but I can't see it. You know how these things are. So a single person dies, but it's really nothing, and everyone keeps adding to the story. I mean, sure, the gargoyle seems to have changed positions in these photos. But to go from ‘boy commits suicide near odd gargoyle’ to ‘boy is murdered by gargoyle’? It seems a bit loony. Why don't I just research this as a regular suicide story? Then we can leave out the gargoyles.”

“Why don't you like the story?”

“That gargoyle just saved my life, so I guess I'm a bit biased.”

Left and center. A photo of the Thanksgiving day parade passing the cathedral. Very few photos have a view of the rear tower (the facade is considered the architectural highlight). Note that the gargoyle is squatting the same way as the others. Right and center. A photo showing the new position of the gargoyle, taken after the second and third murder.

This office is all dark mahogany and plush leather, and there is no hint that any paperwork is actually done here. The headmistress of the school, Ms. Petrich, sighs deeply and looks down—and I notice her trying to read my reaction. “No, Thomas was a completely average student. Average performance in class, liked by his peers but not popular. There was really nothing we could have done to prevent that senseless tragedy. If only there had been some sign, maybe we could have helped him. But it can happen to anyone, that's what is so terrible about suicide, you have got to understand.”

Thomas received an A for his work in this course. I was impressed with his great originality in thesis topics, which he was able to follow up with good efforts in research and write-up. Thomas was well prepared for each class, and it is clear that he did the readings before class. A few colleagues of mine have said he looks bored in class, but I think this is more an effect of his classmates than of his classes. He could signal that better by being more active in raising his hand, but it is understandable that he doesn't wish to stand out. Thomas seems exceedingly mature for his age, and his analytic style has managed to challenge even some of my own assumptions.

“Yes, I'm Michael. We hung out.” He looks around quickly. There are other students walking down the halls. He lowers his voice. “Not a lot at school though, he didn't want the two of us to be associated, or they might figure us out.”

“Figure you out how?”

“That we were the two scholarship students. Not that it matters, because we fit in here like sore thumbs fit in square peg holes.”

“Why wouldn't you want people to know if you won a scholarship?”

“It's a full ride scholarship, for low-income students. Not something you announce to everyone if you're going to a school where the median income is two fifty Ks.”

“Do you think Thomas got along well with people here? Was he having trouble fitting in because his family is poor?”

“Of course he didn't. And he didn't fit in because he isn't a douche.”

“Strange that Ms. Petrich didn't mention either the scholarship or the social problems he had.”

“Yeah? Well, I bet you she didn't mention the huge foundation grant either.”

“No, she didn't. What do you know about it?”

“Doesn't it seem a bit strange that there are only two students here on scholarship? Seemed strange to us, because if they were really committed to helping poor kids like they say they are, then how come they are only helping two? Even though their broachers talk about how much diversity there is here, socioeconomic included. Well, you can pretty much see," he waves his hand towards the other students, "how much diversity there really is here. So Thomas started looking around, and he found out that the McCarmac Family Foundation has half a million dollar grants for private schools to ‘advance the educations of low-income students.’ Seems like they are doing the bare minimum to get the grant money, and putting the rest in the endowment fund. Well, now they are panicked, because they've got to find a replacement student to put on scholarship.”

The Robert McCarmac Low Income Initiative Grant: awarded to schools that demonstrate a commitment to helping the disadvantaged achieve an excellent education. As a condition to receiving this grant the schools must name two low-income students as Robert McCarmac Fellows and grant them full scholarships.

I sit down in the scuffed chair that is offered me. The apartment is meager. It looks like it is normally well kept, but has recently suffered neglect.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know this must be a very hard time for you.”

“It has been very difficult. But I want the world to know that Thomas was the best son I could hope for, so how can I help you?”

“I was hoping I could read Thomas's journal or diary, if he kept one. Otherwise just his papers. This will remain strictly confidential, of course; we would ask your permission to publish anything we find to be of interest.”

Mom went to the doctor today. First time in a long while. The checkup didn't find anything, so she's stayed lucky so far. If she got breast cancer or something I don't know what we'd do. Probably stop eating for a while. Sabrina's mom just got a boob job, according to Michael. Too bad she never does anything besides drop Sabrina off at school. At least with this new job I'd be able to help a little.

“Thomas? Yeah, he was a good kid. Always got to work on time, didn't leave early. Since my job is just making sure people do those two things, he was cool with me.”

“Did you notice anything peculiar about him?”

“What, other than that he arrived on time?” he laughs.

I smile, but cock my head.

“Well okay, there was something else. The very first week he worked here he got the company life insurance. It's a popular thing to do, 'cuz it's a nice policy, but you don't usually see kids getting life insurance. I mean, what's the point, right?”

XII SUICIDE. The BENEFITS payable are limited if the INSURED commits suicide, regardless of sanity, within two (2) years of the issue date. In such cases our liability will be limited to the return of all PREMIUMS paid.

“Hi, this is Natalie again. Sorry to call so late, but I had a question.”

“It's no problem. We haven't started preparing dinner yet.”

“Have you received any letters from an insurance company recently?”

“We received a letter saying that a claim was still being processed, but we don't have any idea what that is about.”

“It seems that your son purchased an insurance policy on himself, and named you the beneficiary.”

Michael and I have it all figured it out now. We're both paying our life insurance premiums with our jobs, pretty cheaply too, because we're not at risk of anything. But I think we can't wait two years, so we'll have to set something up.

The medical examiner's office smells faintly of embalming fluids, despite being strictly separate from the morgue. It'd be less disconcerting if it weren't so cold here.

“Yes, I've kept the case file open, because there were injuries that were anomalous with a blunt trauma suicide.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“That's not something you hear often as a mortician, but sure. His shoulder was dislocated, forearm broken, and his wrist partially pulverized. Of course, you might expect that from a long fall, but he landed on his legs. His legs were shattered, and then he bled to death. His torso wasn't greatly damaged, so those injuries look out of place. These seem to have occurred shortly before the suicide.”

“And that could be evidence of a violent struggle, then?”

“That's right. Although you would need a hell of an arm to pulverize a wrist, so I don't know what sort of attacker could do that.”

We have a pact. I'm sure I can trust him on this. He knows where I'm coming from, after all. It just makes sense. We aren't going to be railroaded like everyone else. All my life I've had my path chosen for me. Because of where I was born I was instantly limited in what I could do. Eventually this narrows and narrows. The more invested you are in your path, the more loss averse you are. You can't switch courses, it's too late. That's how my mom is. She's stuck. I'm going to make the one choice that is truly mine. I know I can't live the path, I'd be too unhappy not making choices. Better that I make a choice that can set someone else free. There's no American dream for me. I started out behind, so people need only work as hard as me to be ahead. I'm going to beat them to the end, though. My choice is to fall.

“Michael, did you, or did you not assist Thomas in trying to disguise a suicide as a murder?”

“I didn't!" he shouts. Fortunately no one else is in the park.

“Then why is Thomas dead? I know you two had a pact. You should—”

Michael is sobbing. Maybe I was too hard on him. “The pact wasn't for me to help him. We were supposed to commit suicide together and make it look like a double accidental homicide. Then our insurance policies would both payout, and be processed in a week. In time for Christmas.” He takes deep breaths of air and regains some composure. “But I chickened out. I thought for sure that if I didn't show up he wouldn't go through with it, and if I did show up to tell him to stop he'd just convince me all over again. I was so scared. He was probably so disappointed that I didn't come that he decided to just kill himself.”

I spoke to Thomas's mother again. She received a letter saying an insurance claim was being processed. Which means it hasn't been determined whether his death was a suicide or something else. Maybe it is unethical, but I think I'll push for a homicide in my story. That way Thomas will at least have accomplished what he set out to do.

I didn't believe Michael's story, but I feel uneasy, like I've missed something obvious. My heartstrings tug at me. I pace around in my hotel room, trying to burn the nervous energy. I touch my wrist. It's still tender from the fall. Then I realize. I sprint out the hotel and hail a cab.

Benefits Paid: $570

I step into the tower again, out of breath and desperate. I see his silhouette in the darkness, standing on top of a parapet. “No! Michael, don't do it!”, I shout while running toward him.

“Why shouldn't I? I let him down. I shouldn't be here, I should've been there. Everything he worked toward was ruined.”

As he steps off I lunge and hug him around the torso. For a moment we are safe, but then his weight pulls us both down. “Sorry,” I whisper to him. Then I see it. The gargoyle moves so fast it is a blur. It holds us tight against its chest.

Its wings are flapping, but we are still falling. I squeeze Michael tight and look up into the night sky. So many stars, but only one earth. Falling is not much of a choice.