So, it turns out I miss having classes. Lessons. Actual appointments with information.
Who knew, right? It's not like showing up--at Xavier's or before, in the fucked-up real world--was ever a priority, so I would have figured once I skipped out on the X thing and settled in with the Brotherhood, I'd be all, good riddance, and who needs to read about Europe since 1450 when making history for myself is not only on the table, but actually hard to avoid, right?
But yeah, I miss it. Something about the structure, I guess, or the expectation of pulling answers out an assigned reading rather than just learning to react. Wait, I guess it's reacting either way, maybe. Shit. I'll try again. I get a lot more bruises training with Mystique than I ever did at the school, probably because as long as there's the story--the fiction, is probably a stronger way to put that, and I cannot believe I am editing myself in my own damn story, which is, all by itself, probably the exact evidence of what I'm saying about missing the lessons--as long as there's the fiction that Xavier's is more school than training ground, he has to put the brakes on anything real. So it's not like there's nothing here that I'm learning, but it's just different, you know?
But I guess Magneto knows that, knows that even if I got detention back there for setting the chem lab tables on fire (not really on fire. That'd be fucking stupid. I just made fire, and set it on the tables. They didn't touch. I'm not an idiot.), I have this, like, previously-unknown need for academic pursuits.
My mother would be so proud, except for the part about me being a freak.
But Magneto, he is proud of me, or at least, the parts of me she thinks make me fucked up are the parts he likes, so I guess that's why he's pretending there is any chance I have ever read this book he's putting in my hands at 6 on a Sunday when I'm sitting in my room staring at the wall and making good progress on dying of boredom and a bruised ass where I landed on it about a hundred and fifty times this morning.
This book that is thick enough to brain someone with, so I guess I could take it with me for tomorrow's workout. Or it'd make good kindling, if I needed that sort of thing.
"Have you ever read this?" he asks, casual like he wants to start a book club because obviously what a guy who plays with fire and a guy who wants everything around him to be made of metal need is a book club.
"Nope." I don't really do more than glance at the cover, because it doesn't matter what the title is; I have never read a book that's 500 pages. I flip through and check the page number at the end. 532. Good guess.
"No, of course not. It's only won the Booker Prize, and the Booker of Bookers. Why would you want to waste your time with such drivel?"
What is he, offended? I have no idea what the Booker is until right this minute, when I figure it must be something like the Pulitzer. They give that for writing, right? But I'm not about to say that, because he's gone all still in his face, the way he does when he's disappointed--people think he's all about fury, and he is, but he's more about disappointment and disapproval and disdain. A lot of dis-words. So I don't say anything.
"Perhaps your interest would be piqued if you knew that the Friends of Humanity recently staged several mass burnings of this book, and that they're calling for it to be banned from all public libraries?"
Okay, so I don't know if that's true, or if he's playing on my--I can't remember which of them said it, because they're more alike than either of them wants to admit, but one of them said this about me--tendency to glory in acts of delinquency. Probably Xavier, since I think it was said sort of sadly. But he does have my attention, so I shrug. "Yeah, I guess if they don't like it it's probably pretty good."
"Indeed." And he gives me this look, and goes out the door, which opens for him and closes again behind him without a sound.
I look at the cover now. Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie. I wonder who this Rushdie guy is, and I turn the thing over and look at the back.
I learn that the author is from India, and the book is about India, and I wonder, what about that is scary enough that the FOH wants to burn the book. But I don't think I know, um, anything at all about India, so I guess I'll have myself another Xavier moment and consider how no knowledge is ever wasted, and give it a try.
It can't be worse than The Scarlet Letter, or the first five chapters, abandoned upon leaving, of The Mill on the Floss. I would consider donating a testicle not to have to ever finish that book. Seriously.
Page one is blank, or, it was. The book is new, but there's an inscription from Magneto: Remember, Pyro. "Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings." - Heinrich Heine
Well. That's a cheery thought. I flip to the first page, and start reading.
I get to page ten and consider stopping. There's a boatman and there's boiling water and there's a bloody nose, and none of it is making any kind of story. It's like listening to people on a subway when they're all talking, some of them on the phone: half a story here and two thirds of another one there, and maybe you get parts of each mashed together sometimes, and basically when you get off the train, you're left with a collection of names people were talking about and some words that caught your ear.
The obvious thing to do is try to skim and get through, since it's obvious Magneto wants me to read this, but when I try to do that, I get another ten pages and realize I have to go back, because the pieces of the story that do make some kind of sense are complicated and woven into each other, and I am completely lost.
This book might be worse than The Scarlet Letter. Fuck. Although I'm pretty sure there will be no essay, no multiple choice questions on what Hester was doing when the Reverend saw her, none of that. I get a pen and go back and re-read from page ten. It is not my fault I have to make notes in the margins to keep things straight. I can't even tell if I'm supposed to find the parts funny or frightening or unbelievable.
When I come back after supper, I keep reading past sheets with holes and too many unfamiliar names that I'm starting to suspect are annoyingly meaningful, and when I get in bed, teeth brushed and sweatpants that serve as pajamas on, I'm back at it. I'm up to page 68 (how long is this book?) and Mumtaz is changing her name, and even though she isn't taking up a new name to reflect a gift like mine or any of ours, still, that makes me wonder: maybe this book has to do with me. With us. I finally give up and turn off the light when the priest starts talking about blue skin and no one believes him. That is the shit I know about, no one believing and no one wanting to see, and I feel like I can't really look at more right now.
First thing in the morning I look at the book, face-down and open on the nightstand, and leave it right where it is so I can ignore it waiting. It makes me feel like I can take it or leave it, although I'm pretty sure I'll be back to it later. How else will I find out whatever more there is to know about Saleem?
Mystique shows up at my door ten minutes early. "Ready?"
"Not really," I say, grumbling. "My ass is one giant bruise." She gives me a look not unlike the one Magneto gave me the night before, and I sigh. "Yeah, yeah. No pain, no gain, right?"
"No guts, no glory," she says back. "We're big fans of at least one of those."
"Yeah, pain." But I go off with her to the training room, stretching my arms behind me as I walk because if there's anything I know about training with Mystique, it's that anything you've ever heard about warming up before you start is complete crap, according to her, so I know she'll start kicking my ass as soon as we're in the door.
"You liking the book?" She asks, thirty seconds from the gym.
"What?" We keep walking.
"I saw it in your room."
"He make you read it, too?"
She rolls her eyes. "I read it years ago." Her skin ripples just a little, and I think she's upset. "I sent Charles a copy shortly after the first printing. I don't know if he read it."
I sometimes forget she's nearly the same age as Xavier. And Magneto. I shrug. "I guess so. That I like it okay. I'm not that far in."
She nods and throws me to the floor.
Fucking training room.
Another hundred pages go by after lunch and then dinner before I'm sure what I'm supposed to be understand. Well, mostly sure. Ish. If nothing else, I'm sure about the names being meaningful. But although I'm getting faster, better at keeping track of who belongs to what part of the tale, although I finally feel like the pieces are one story that all fits together, I come to a bit that stops me cold (I wonder when that phrase will stop making me think of Bobby, and when the realization that I am doing so will stop feeling like stopping cold as well), and I go back and read it again: Understand what I'm saying: during the first hour of August 15th, 1947- between midnight and one am- no less than one thousand and one children were born within the frontiers of the infant sovereign state of India. In itself, that is not an unusual fact (although the resonances of the number are strangely literary)- at the time, births in our part of the world exceeded deaths by approximately six hundred and eighty-seven an hour. What made the event noteworthy (noteworthy! There's a dispassionate word, if you like!) was the nature of these children, every one of whom was, through some freak of biology, or perhaps owing to some preternatural power of the moment, or just conceivably by sheer coincidence (although synchronicity on such a scale would stagger even C. G. Jung), endowed with features, talents, or faculties which can only be described as wondrous. It was as though- if you will permit me one moment of fancy in what will otherwise be, I promise, the most sober account I can manage- as though history, arriving at a point of the highest significance and promise, had chosen to sow, in that instant, the seeds of a future which would genuinely differ from anything the world had seen up to that time.
And there it is. This Rushdie guy has to be a mutant, or maybe have a sibling or something. He has to know, right? About what it means to have this secret, to carry it and know that you are one of a brotherhood that can't show its face. About what it means to have everyone in every book and movie and television show deny your existence by simply ignoring it.
I look at the back of the book again, although I've flipped back to look at it a few times before. It doesn't say anything about it, but then maybe it wouldn't. So many of us hide--at Xavier's school, for instance--that maybe in order to get published, he has to keep it on the down-low, take one for the team as far as pretending and passing as normal. But even then. Would he get away with writing about it? Is that why the FOH wants to burn the book?
Well, at least it won a prize--wait. Is the Booker Prize for works of Mutant Fiction or something?
I set it down, page marked, and head for the showers.
I run into Gambit on the way and ask him if he knows, but he just shrugs and rumbles something in his pidgin that I can't quite resolve into words, but I think it's an 'I don't know,' so after I get cleaned up I go downstairs and spend a few quality minutes in Mystique's office with Google to find out (answer: nope, it's a normal non-mutant book prize. That makes me feel like there's some hope for us yet).
Still, I don't read any more tonight. I have thinking to do.
Xavier uses telepathy to feel people. To find people--mutants, people like us--and that can be used. Against us, or against him. If I see it, Magneto sees it. Mystique sees it.
I wonder if the Professor sees it.
When I wake up in the night, there's no point in pretending it's not because I want to read more. I pick up the book and go on, reading until my eyes are heavy, wondering about the timeline and about Saleem. Unreliable narrator, Xavier's voice says in my head, and I can't tell whether that was a dream, or a memory, or whether perhaps Xavier is looking for me right now. He might be. He says he would never force me to come back, but he might be looking.
I don't know how I feel about that.
The book is open under my hand beside me when I wake up.
I ignore Mystique and keep reading. I don't know if I've ever read a book this thick and this dense this fast, and I'm not quite sure why I feel the need to get to the end of the story. Will there be triumph? That could be why it's being burned. Or maybe it will end the way it always does. Maybe mutants will be slaughtered.
I read until The Monkey flirts with Christianity (how does that work, in India? That isn't a way to be more normal, is it? It seems as though for every way in which Saleem wants to hide his difference, The Monkey wants to shout about herself, and I feel like she's right, but she's not the mutant) and then on, until Schaapsteker tells Saleem to study his enemies, and I set the book aside.
And then I open the drawer of the nightstand and put it inside, closing it in.
Then I move it to the desk drawer instead, further away, because he is right. We have to study our enemies, or they will surely kill us, and I can't see a way that will end well.
"Mystique tells me you've skipped today's practice," Magneto tells me from the doorway, and I spin around, startled.
"I was reading," I tell him. "I just. I'm not done yet, but there wasn't a good stopping point."
"There never is," he tells me. "Not until somebody wins."
And that's the thing. I don't know who should win. I want to be who Magneto lets me be: my true self, with my true name. But I know what defeating the X-Men will mean (for them, and for us), and I hate it. "Do you think winning once will...end things?" I ask.
"It never has before," Magneto says. "I'll leave you to it."
And he leaves again, and I stare at the closed drawer and throw up my hands. Maybe Mystique still has some time for me.
What I intend is to leave the book in the drawer. Someone has to win, and that's enough, right? Someone has to win, and someone has to lose, and the winner has to be the side that is the strongest. And we are.
But after supper I find myself drawn in again, and I take the book back to my bed and read and read, past midnight, past two, until my eyes are burning and my jaw hurts from yawning, but I'm almost done and I want to finish this.
When Saleem is captured and made to reveal the others, I close the book and turn out the light.
I don't want to read this.
I don't want to know how he can be used this way, how his mind isn't his own, how the government can... but of course it can, and of course it would be easy for Cerebro to do exactly this. How can we justify the existence of such a thing? How can he justify it?
I can't sleep.
Sometime when I can hear birds outside, I sigh and reach for the lamp.
I stop again when I read They were good doctors: they left nothing to chance. Not for us the simple vas- and tubectomies performed on the teeming masses; there was a chance, just a chance that such operations could be reversed...
I turn off the light again.
There is no way to end it, unless someone wins.
And the mutants have to win, even if it means taking down others like us. Even if it means we fight against our own as well as against those who would harm us. We have to know our enemies, and we can't let them kill us.
I lie awake the rest of the night, but I don't pull the book out again. I know how it ends, and if I flip through the final pages when I stretch my way out of bed a few hours later, all that does is confirm what I know.
"Have you finished you book, then, Pyro?" Magneto asks when I show up for breakfast, exhausted and yawning, heading directly for the coffee before shuffling to the table to hunch over it.
"Pretty much," I mutter into the cup.
"And?" he asks. "What were your thoughts on this... inflammatory piece of literature?"
It's easier to brood than to answer, but I look up. "It won't take us a thousand and one generations." That's simpler than the whole answer, but Magneto offers a lopsided grin, one half of his mouth curving up, and I think I want to just accept the approval rather than go int further detail. I sip at the coffee, which scalds my tongue, and add, "and we won't lose."
Mystique catches my eye and lifts one of those invisible brows, and I think she and I should talk later. I think we probably agree on the rest of the story--about alliances and politics, and keeping potential allies at a distance--and that maybe there's an essay for me to write here, one way or another, after all.
I finish my coffee and pour another cup, then go back to her office for another date with Google and Amazon. I have some history to brush up on (and it might even be Europe since 1450, for all I know), and I feel like I probably should get started.