... for Understanding

This is one of a series of alternate endings to the Henry James short story The Beast in the Jungle. John Marcher, the protagonist, lives with, “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen,” and he shares this secret about his fate only with May Bartram, a woman he meets in his youth. Together they wait for John’s event until their old age...


She shook her head again. “However the case stands that isn’t the truth. Whatever the reality, it is a reality. The door isn’t shut. The door’s open,” said May Bartram.

“Then something’s to come?” said John Marcher.

Marcher had been standing by a fireplace unadorned except by two candlesticks that were, like the fire under the mantel, unlit, and an ovular mirror in which he could see his profile. He watched her, as watching him she had always done. Her answer, unlike his own, came not through the slow pulse of years, but as one beat follows the next, “It is the failure of your coming through, that is the something. Do you understand now?”

“Now?” Her evocation of the present, when everything between them had been of a future yet to come and a past spent in its anticipation, seemed to Marcher complete. “I know nothing and knowing nothing now seems worse than any knowing could be,” he said.

May Bartram stepped into and then through the light; there was a flare as her profile met his in the mirror. She had grown luminous with age, her granular skin like a crêpe cloth wrapped around a radiant jellyfish. As she inhaled her features quivered, pulsed even,

as if she would release Marcher’s mystery into the air as breath, as scent, as spit. “Nothing is not a object of knowledge, but I am.”

Something white flashed between May Bartram’s teeth; Marcher felt sure that it was his. She puckered her mouth and a pearl parted her lips. Marcher pinched it with his fingers and pulled, but the pearl was slippery with saliva and his hand slid across May Bartram’s chin. Marcher tried again; he put one hand at the back her neck and with the other he dug his fingers deep into her mouth, forcing her to separate her teeth. Now he had a firm grasp on the pearl, but as he pulled another followed it and then another. Marcher paused, first stunned than expectant as the strand of pearls dangled between May Bartram’s mouth and his raised hand. Marcher reached up with his other hand and pulled down in one quick thrust, but still the length of pearls was not exhausted. One hand followed the other like the pearls were a length of rope he could climb, that he could use to scale the wall of a dank well, but soon they lay in a humiliating pile on the floor and Marcher stood panting. May Bartram opened her mouth and the end of the strand fell to the floor with a clang.

Understanding is a relation between the knower and an object of understanding.
The object of understanding hums; she humors the knower and he gently vibrates. But the object of understanding can also groan, even scream; she can hit a resonant frequency that will cause the knower to vibrate so vigorously he will shatter under the strain. When the object of understanding quiets nothing will be left but shards—the dispossession curse of the inaudible holes in knowledge. May Bartram slid her hand across the marble ledge of the fireplace beside Marcher, her phosphorescent skin turning hard and silver as she steadied herself.

“Your fate is not to recognize your horror, only to live it. Having done so, I would save you the suffering of knowing.” Two arms shot out, one to grab the candlestick and the other to grab its reflection, and both raised their object high in the air. In the moment before the cold metal cracked open Marcher’s skull, he saw by the kindness on May Bartram’s face that she was saving him, not from his fate, which she in her veraciousness claimed lived and so was lived, but from understanding.