A Closer Look …

… at Passengers: [spoilers] what it means for Aurora to choose to stay with Jim.

In Passengers, the space ship transporting thousands of colonists to a distant planet experiences a malfunction that awakens Jim Preston eighty years ahead of schedule. He cannot return to hibernation (as far as he knows), and he anticipates a life of absolute loneliness which drives him into depression and despair. Eventually he decides – against his own better judgment – to wake up one of the other passengers, the lovely Aurora Lane, whose profile he has been studying.

The problem isn’t that we don’t understand why he did that; the problem is, what do we think of Aurora’s decision to love Jim, and to stay with him, even when she knows that he woke her up on purpose, even after she learns that she can return to hibernation?

For me, the story of Passengers isn’t about the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale; it’s about what happens after the fairy-tale. For me – and for many women – the fairy-tale notions we’ve grown up reading and seeing and learning all too often turn into something we think we should be living. We fall for the suggestion that we are princesses, and that “someday our prince will come,” and that the prince will be handsome and rich and cheerful and perfect, and he will take us away and we will live “happily ever after.” We fall for the suggestion that that’s love. We fall for the thought that real, living human beings can be reduced to two-dimensional cartoon characteristics, and that finding love (and a prince to care for you) is the end of all your problems.

I know actual people in my life who have spent half a century being unhappy and bitter that the men they married weren’t actually princes, and that life was still full of challenges, problems, and complexity. For me, this “princess” syndrome is a sad parallel to Stockholm syndrome – using our emotional expectations to make socioeconomic decisions that guarantee we’re dependent on men and vaguely disappointed with their faults and humanity. We don’t fall in love with our captors; rather, we choose our captors in advance and expect ourselves to fall in love with them.

But when this “prince”, Jim Preston, wakes up his Aurora, they don’t get to ride off into the sunset. There’s even a scene where they watch the ship pass close by a sun, and they’re moved by it … and then they turn around and return to the empty ship. No sunset, no white horse, no happily ever after … just the day-to-day reality of living with one another. They’re falling in love, but that doesn’t fill the ship with other people, or transport them magically to the distant planet. And it certainly doesn’t make a lick of difference to Aurora when she discovers that Jim woke her up – that it was no malfunction of technology but rather his human weakness that has damned her to this life. She hates him. Of course she hates him. She doesn’t care if he’s sorry. She doesn’t care if he had reasons that she can understand. She doesn’t care, because it’s her life, and he’s ruined it. He’s chosen something for her without her knowledge or approval … and when we compare this metaphorical story to real life, we can see all too well how often women – and men too – put themselves in that princess-woken-up-by-the-prince position: our finances, our emotional well-being, the life we carve out for ourselves – we’ve decided that some “prince” should be instrumental in those things, and that we’re helpless to do anything about it.

But in the story – on the space-ship – Aurora doesn’t have any actual power, right? She doesn’t have economic wealth without Jim … well, actually, she’s the one who has the gold level of access, and once she’s awake, he can finally get something out of the food dispenser besides oatmeal. She can’t explore her career … well, actually, her chosen profession of writing and journalism proceeds just as it would have on the distant planet, with the same expectation of her words being heard by future generations. She’s in the same situation Jim is, sentenced to a life on a sleeping ship with only each other and the android waiters for company. The only difference is that he did this to her … and when she sees what he’s done, she stops loving him. She even debates killing him.

But one day she faces the possibility of being alone herself, of losing Jim to the peril (all movies have to face a peril), and she decides that she would rather not be alone. She decides to save his life, and to open her heart again to loving him. She decides to forgive – perhaps because of the love she felt before his misdeed was revealed, perhaps because she suddenly understood in a more visceral way how the prospect of a solitary life had prompted him to make such a selfish choice. She puts him in the medical pod and resuscitates him … even though, technically, he would have been better off dead.

He had debated suicide before he woke up Aurora, and, as far as he knew, the rest of any life he would have on the ship would be spent in the ritualized mutual avoidance he and Aurora developed after their break-up. He had welcomed her attempt to kill him, and looked a bit disappointed that she chose to walk away. Even if he thought that perhaps she might one day be willing to talk to him again, what sort of life is it to spend sixty years with only one other person to talk to and only so many songs stored in the computer? He would have been better off dead; her resuscitation of him, technically, can be described as a selfish act of cruelty.

But if this is the flip side of Sleeping Beauty, why, then, does she decide to stay with him in such a solitary life even after they discover that the med-pod will act as a hibernation unit? He tells her to go into it; neither of them suggests that he go into it – the consequence of his misdeed is that none of his redeeming acts will allow him to be the one who gets the med-pod. So why does she stay? She suddenly has options; why would she choose to stay with Jim and call it love?

Well, at any time, she can change her mind – she can go into the hibernation pod and leave Jim to his lonely fate. And speaking as someone who grew up hearing the “happily-ever-after” myth – and seeing the real-life consequence of waiting for a prince to come and then handing over agency to him – if Aurora has choices, then she has freedom. She has agency. She has everything.

To look at her decision as a sign of Stockholm syndrome is to say, “A woman cannot choose; her alleged decisions are really just siding with her captor. A woman has no agency; her actions are really just a factor of male manipulation.” To look at her decision this way is to say, “Jim is the main character.” And, most importantly, when we look at the theme of this story as a parallel to real life and to real human interaction, seeing her decision in such a way is to say, “Jim is a villain because he did something wrong.” But everyone makes mistakes, and the one that women who find themselves in the “princess” zone make all too often is to decide that life and love and relationships and expectations and careers and responsibility are up to “the man” and are guaranteed to be “perfect”.

Are there plenty of examples in the real world of women (and men) unwisely staying with a partner whose “mistakes” are unacceptable? Of course. But I don’t think this movie is referring to those examples. I think it’s referring to a more general human truth – we all have faults and failing, we make mistakes, we do things because they seemed like a good idea at the time. Real life is full of complications and difficulties and people who aren’t as uniquely and joyfully suited to one another as a pair of cartoon characters. Real life exists on the other side of the sunset, and there are no guarantees of anything.

For me, the answer to the “princess syndrome” is for us to wake up – to take initiative, to explore our options, to be comfortable with our boundaries and our needs and our feelings, to carve out our own lives and to only allow others into them according to what we think will be good for us. For me, this answer addresses the all-too-real problem of staying with people who aren’t good to us – because we’ll know that we can make our own decisions and take care of ourselves, so we won’t be as likely to choose a “captor-victim” dynamic over a true friendship or partnership.

For me, the main character of Passengers is not Jim; it’s Aurora. We know her story before we know Jim’s. We know her emotions and her reasons for them. Our hearts are aligned with hers, because, although we understand why Jim did what he did, we know how horrible it is for her to face the life he has sentenced her to. We know that, if he is to redeem himself, it will probably be by sacrificing his life for her, because nothing less will cut it. If he wants her to believe that he’s good enough for her, then he’s going to have to die. … And he does. He dies. He can give no more than that. In the context of the story, it makes sense to me that she would choose to give him a chance.

But if we look at the theme of the film? – does it still make sense for her to choose to spend a life with him when she could have gone into the med-pod? I think it makes even more sense.

In real life, the outcome isn’t about a sixty-year stint on a ship with no other human being to talk to; it’s about a sixty-year stint with someone we chose for reasons that might have included an expectation of being cared for, or an expectation of our prince’s sunny, cheerful perfection in temperament and talent. In real life, no one’s perfect. In real life, no one “saves” us. In real life, we choose on a daily basis: Do I go into the med-pod or do I stick with this other person? In real life, that choice is a lot harder than we usually expect it to be, especially if we bought the “princess” thing.

If there hadn’t been a med-pod for her to go into, maybe I would feel differently. But Aurora can choose to climb into the med-pod at any moment, and, since she’s the one with gold level access, she can control Jim’s movements on the ship should he try to interfere with her getting into, and staying in, the med-pod. She didn’t need Jim to wake her up with a prince’s kiss. She didn’t need him to survive the peril. She doesn’t need him for gold level access. To see him as the captor and her as the hostage is to give him power over her that he never had in the first place, and it suggests that the ship – and the story – are somehow his and that she’s just a kidnapped visitor. But in fact Aurora holds all the cards, and her voice (as she narrates her writing that she’s left for the colonists to find) is the only one we hear.

In fact, Jim has to go forward knowing that Aurora holds those cards. He has to know that he’s only alive because she saved him – twice. He has to know, for the rest of his life, that her staying with him is a tremendous gift and that his original misdeed was egregious beyond words – his worth is now inextricably linked to her willingness to forgive. … Maybe he’s the hostage. Maybe when she resuscitated him, that “kiss” woke him up, and now he’s embracing pseudo-romantic into-the-sunset notions that revolve exclusively around “well, at least I won’t be alone anymore.” Maybe we should question why he’s okay with that.

But I don’t think we should question Aurora’s decision … because it was hers to make. Ironically enough, Jim always knew that – that’s why he felt conflicted and horrible. And if even one princess (waiting for her perfect saviour-prince) watches the story and thinks, “I, too, can make my own decisions,” then the message was a good one indeed.

The Thing I Like About …

Star Trek: The Next Generation: the one where Worf leaps into parallel realities.

Lt. Worf has somehow fallen into a thin spot in space – a place where he crosses out of his own quantum reality and into another, and then another, and then another. At first, his experiences are simple enough to be explained by fatigue; his birthday cake is chocolate and then it’s vanilla. A painting is on one wall, but then suddenly it’s on another. Things he thought he had done somehow hadn’t been done after all. He’s perplexed, but willing to chalk it up to needing rest.

But then he discovers that his friend Deanna is his wife.

As he continues to shift from one reality to the next, he learns that he and Deanna have two children together … and that his son Alexander has never existed here.

Worf is given a glimpse into what-might-have-been, into the outcomes of other choices. He sees the loving relationship he could have with Deanna. He sees the children he could have with her. He sees new and different ways to decorate his living quarters.

But if he wants these things, he has to let go of what he already has – his son.

People in the real world spend – oh, I suppose a good chunk of our lives, really – wondering what might have been. We think about our choices and imagine that other choices would have been preferable. We regret. We bemoan. We pine for things that never were and blame ourselves for our poor decisions. People in the real world are always looking for that thin-spot-in-space that will allow us to start over and do something differently.

But what would we be giving up?

We don’t really know all the ways that events are interconnected, or the positive outcomes of our negative experiences. We evaluate events based on whether or not we felt embarrassed or scared, rather than on whether we really have made a mistake or done something wrong. We take for granted the things and people around us, and spend far too much time wishing for all that we left behind when we chose what we chose. We act as though we can’t choose new things now, so that instead of moving forward, we’re living in our own alternate pasts and missing out on our real lives.

When Worf finds the thin-spot-in-space, he learns pretty quickly that he preferred his own reality, and that he would do anything to get back to his son. When he has the opportunity to live with what-might-have-been, he wants nothing more than to return to what-actually-happened. He does move forward upon his return – toying with the notion of starting a relationship with Deanna – but all the wonderful things that other Worfs had done in other realities paled next to the prospect of missing his son’s life.

How much time do you spend wondering about what-might-have-been?

What are you missing out on while you do that?

And, if you really could go back and do something differently, what – or who – would you lose?

The Thing I Like About …

Matilda: she loves her parents.

Matilda is a very bright girl with a strong moral character, whose parents are … um … very different from her. They do not have moral characters. They are not concerned with their fellow man. They are more concerned that their children reflect their life choices than they are with providing a nurturing environment for said children. What intellect they have is spent in shallow pursuits and nefarious activities that, if they aren’t careful, are going to get them in trouble with the police.

Matilda does not like spending time with her parents. She doesn’t have anything in common with them. They’re threatened by her intelligence and by her scholarly interests. They are neglectful, and arbitrary, and have a tendency toward violent outbursts. Matilda works very hard through the whole film to find a way to be anywhere but home, because she doesn’t like “home” and she doesn’t like her parents.

But she doesn’t hate them either.

She tries to arrange things so that her father doesn’t get arrested for the stupid things he does. She tries to explain to him the difference between right and wrong, so that he can avoid the pitfalls of his own behaviour. When she finally makes a move to leave her parents behind, it’s with no rancour whatsoever.

It is her parents’ fault for creating such a wretched environment, and for being such wretched parents. But Matilda figures out – from a very early age – the thing that so many of us spend our whole lives trying to learn: you can dislike an environment, or an event, or a person, but you don’t have to hate people to separate from them. You don’t have to punish them for being less than you needed. You don’t have to dishonour the things they did that were good, or for which you are grateful (for giving you life, for instance). You don’t even have to be angry. You can just walk away to something new.

Depending on the situation and the people involved, you might try your darnedest to help them see a different path … but if they don’t get it, or don’t want it, or don’t hear you, that’s okay. You don’t have to feel discouraged, or like a failure. And you don’t have to stick around.

Matilda figures out that loving your parents doesn’t make them good for you. She figures out that “goodness” isn’t measured by how much bad stuff we put up with. And she figures out that, at the end of the day, no one is hurt by her moving toward a happier life.

In fact, everybody wins.

The Thing I Like About …

No One Lives: when she realizes the door was never locked.

In No One Lives, the bad-guy imprisons a girl, keeping her in a locked cell – and sometimes in the trunk of his car – for months. We watch in flashbacks as he enters the cell and closes the door behind him; he tells her that if she kills him, she’ll starve to death in the cell since no one knows that either of them is there and he hasn’t brought the keys in with him. Then he cuts his own throat, and waits for her to save him. Does she save him because she doesn’t want to watch a man die? It would be hard, perhaps, to watch someone die, even if he was an evil man; she’s not evil, after all. Does she save him because she doesn’t want to die? – without his keys, she’d be trapped in the cell, and no one would ever know to come look for either of them. For whatever reason, she saves him. He lays there, recovering from his self-inflicted wound, and tells her that she’s chosen to be his victim. She disagrees. He gets up and walks out of the cell, through a door that had been unlocked the whole time.

She could have walked out with no trouble.

What does that mean? Well, for the girl, it means that the bad guy locks the door again and keeps the girl trapped for a long, long time.

For us?

Well, for us, I think it’s a call to look around us – at our problems, our attitudes, our goals, our suffering, our plans and dreams, our future, our happiness. We should examine our excuses, our reasons, our motivations, our assumptions … our fears.

How many of our metaphorical doors are actually unlocked? How many of our choices and actions and feelings are based on “realities” that don’t actually exist? How many of us, at any time, could just turn from the situation (internal or external or both) that we’re in … and just walk right out the door?

How many of us are in prisons of our own making?

You may be thinking: “Well, I’m not that girl! If I were in that situation, I would have let him die and just found a way out of the cell somehow. If I were in that situation, I would try the door.”

All right, then.

But you’re not in this extraordinary situation, filled with dramatically enhanced moral dilemmas. You’re not being locked in a trunk every other day by a madman. You’re not faced with the terrible choice of letting another human being die or not. Compared to this scenario, your life is … easier.

Easier to live. Easier to fix.

Whatever limits you’re facing, there (probably) isn’t a serial killer bleeding to death between you and the door to your freedom. You don’t even have to step over the body, or fish through his pockets for the key.

The doors have all been unlocked the whole time.

The Thing I Like About …

The Lego Movie: the theme-tune.

At the beginning of the movie, we see Emmett and the other Lego people in the town all getting up and getting ready for their days – the same exact day they had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. We see pretty quickly that Emmett’s life is more than overdue for a real change, and that one of the points of the movie will probably be breaking Emmett out of his habits and helping him have an adventure.

We watch as Emmett has that adventure, and meets new people who “don’t follow the instructions”, and he and these new friends form a team that has what it takes to destroy the bad guy – if they can learn to work together.

And so the theme-tune does double duty: it points out how the town is stagnating in its uniformity and routine, by having everyone chant in unison, “Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” … and sounding for all the world like a town full of brainwashed zombies tricked into believing that they love their mundane, repetitive lives. But the song is just as true in the second half of the film: the bad guy is only thwarted – and all friendships honoured and solidified – when everyone is “part of a team”.

So what does that mean?

It means that teams aren’t about rigidity and conformity; they’re made up of individuals – who each have their own skills and talents – and they work best when they’re formed by the team-members themselves. It means that in the end, there’s no particular right or wrong to the kind of lives we lead – as long as our days are our own, as long as we have the ability to choose, as long as we aren’t paralyzed by the unknown.

It’s also kind of nice, in such a maudlin world as ours has become, to have a song about how great things are.

So … best theme-tune ever.

The Jennings – Chapter Three

Asked and Answered

Elizabeth sat for a moment in stunned silence, staring up at Jennings with plain incredulity.  Sir,” she said finally when she could find her voice.  “You should not joke!”

Jennings smiled and shook his head.  “I am quite in earnest, Miss Carlisle,” he said placidly.  He leaned toward her and added, “Do you see any other way out of your predicament?”

Elizabeth could not, in fact, see any other way out of her predicament, but to foist herself upon a man who had already done so much for her! – whom she had known less than a week, and who would hardly wish to be saddled with a wife he barely knew.  She did not even have a dowry to recommend her.  No, although the frightened part of her leapt at the chance to solve her problem so easily, she could not accept his offer.

“Mr. Jennings,” she began.  “I could not possibly importune you in such a way.”

He shook his head again.  “It does not importune me in the least, Miss Carlisle,” he said, his manner easy-going, as though he had asked her to tea rather than for her hand in marriage.  “As I said, if it is repugnant to you, we will find some other solution … but I do not immediately see what that solution could be.”  He glanced briefly toward Lady Morton, who stood behind him as still as a statue, her face frozen in an expression of expectant awe.  “Lady Morton would gladly house you for a thousand years,” Jennings said.  “But you have expressed concern that she would be harmed by opening her doors to you.”

“She would be harmed!” Elizabeth averred stringently.  “She has daughters whose reputations would be linked with mine!”

Lady Morton seemed inclined to argue with Elizabeth on this point, but Mr. Jennings continued before she could speak.  “I suppose it’s pointless to attempt to convince you otherwise,” he said drily.  “And, I suppose, you might be right about it, although I doubt very much that it would be as disastrous as you predict.  But since this is your feeling, can we assume, then, that you do not wish to accept a place in Lady Morton’s household?”

Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears.  “It is precisely because of her incredible kindness and generosity that I could not possibly bear to burden her in even the slightest part.”

Jennings, moved by Elizabeth’s woebegone countenance, gently squeezed her hand.  “Do you think,” he asked delicately.  “That your father will reconsider his feelings?”

Elizabeth made a sound like a scoff mixed with a sob.  “I do not,” she said without hesitation.

“I am not vicious,” Jennings pointed out, smiling warmly.  “I live in extremely comfortable circumstances.  We seem able to converse easily with one another.  These present a most agreeable foundation for contentment in marriage, do you not think?”  He paused for a moment, watched her as she digested all that he had said.  “I am most happy to make this offer, Miss Carlisle,” he assured her.  “If you do not believe it would result in misery for you, then I beg you will not refuse me for any fear of … importuning me, as you say.”

Elizabeth did not know what to feel.  She could see very well his sincerity, but she questioned how well contented he would be when the unnecessary guilt and notions of responsibility he apparently entertained had faded.  He was a very eligible prospect for any young lady, and she was sensible that she would be fortunate to marry him regardless of her situation, but, indeed, that was the problem – he could choose almost any girl he wanted, and to settle on her might be a decision he would quickly come to see as a mistake.  She could not bear the thought of causing even a moment’s unhappiness to the man who had saved her life.

“Sir,” she said.  “Mr. Jennings. I – I cannot allow you to take a step so disastrous to your happiness.”

Jennings looked surprised.  “Why on earth would it be disastrous to my happiness?” he asked.  He did not give her time to respond, but instead repeated, “Do you see any other way out of it, Miss Carlisle?”

Thoughts ran through her head of every possible outcome.  “I could enter a convent,” she offered.  “Or become a governess or – ”

Jennings’ smile broadened as he interrupted her.  “Or a scullery-maid or a milliner?”

“Well, yes!” Elizabeth said rather defensively.  “I must do something, after all!  Why not the same as many other women before me?”

Jennings did not bother to answer her question.  “Do you want,” he said deliberately.  “To be a milliner?  Or a governess?  Or live in a convent?”  He gazed into her eyes with disconcerting directness as he waited for her reply.

She imagined the sort of existence that awaited her should she pursue any of the options she had described.  Life in a convent would likely not be rewarding to her, but it would probably be an easier life than that of governess or scullery-maid.  Added to the drudgery of such professions would be the unavoidable awkwardness of employment under families who would be well aware of her earlier station – families who would be obliged to see her father in society.  She envisioned the endless years of tedious and difficult labour that stretched before her, and her heart sank even further than it already had.  “No,” she admitted, fresh tears filling her eyes.  “But what else am I to do?”

Jennings chuckled.  “Why, Miss Carlisle,” he said brightly, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips.  “You can accept my offer, if it does not seem as dreadful as the other choices you mentioned!”  He shook his head, and his voice carried the ghost of a laugh.  “You would choose these other delightful avenues,” he said.  “To spare me from – what? – a charming and genteel wife?  Someone intelligent and kind-hearted, who will be the loveliest hostess in all England?”  Something occurred to him, and he said animatedly, “You’ll no doubt wish to throw parties.  My house has not seen a party since before my mother passed away!”  He noticed then in her eyes the faint look of hope that hid beneath her fears and heartache, and this prompted him to confide to her, “You see, Miss Carlisle, I never dance.”

A slight frown drew her brows together for an instant.  If he never danced, she wondered, why was he suggesting that they throw parties?  “What do you mean?” she asked him.  “You danced with me the other night.”

“Exactly,” he said, kissing her hand once more.  “Exactly my point.”  He continued to stare directly into her eyes, so that she found she could not turn away, and her many concerns began to melt away in the face of his friendly and open demeanour.  What had moments before been an impossible course of action now seemed not only possible but perfectly acceptable, and his questions played over and over in her mind as she looked back at him: Do you want to be a governess?  Do you see any other way out of your predicament?

Indeed, no, she did not want to be a governess, or a maid, or a ward in Lady Morton’s home. If she spoke the whole truth, she did not even want to return to her father’s home, where she had been, while tolerably happy, never quite able to relax or to be herself.  A life with Mr. Jennings would be one free of the censure and judgments of her father.  Good God, she realized with a start.  I do want to accept this offer!

“Mr. Jennings,” she said, searching his face for his reaction to her next question.  “Are you quite – quite – sure about this, sir?”

He laughed again.  “I am quite – quite – sure, Elizabeth.  And if you accept my offer,” he added.  “I will do all I can, every day of my life, to guarantee that you do not regret your decision.”  His voice betrayed some measure of his emotion, but his calm and affable expression never wavered as he waited for her to speak.

Discovering as she said the words that a great weight had been lifted from her – a weight that had almost been past bearing – Elizabeth managed, through her tears, to croak out her consent.  “I do accept your offer, Mr. Jennings.”

Lady Morton, no longer able to contain herself, clapped her hands together in delight and laughed her excited approval.  “Oh, it is everything one could wish!” she crowed.  “I could not be happier for both of you, my dears!”  She came forward and gently patted Elizabeth’s cheek.  “I told you all would be well, dearest,” she reminded her guest.  “And you could not ask for a better man than Mr. Jennings!  Why, I have known him since he was a babe-in-arms!”

Elizabeth, still overcome, could do no more than feebly nod her agreement with Lady Morton’s assessment.  It seemed, indeed, that there could be no better man on the earth than this person who had now rescued her twice.  “I – I do not know what to say, Mr. Jennings,” she murmured.  “Except that I thank you.”

“Thank you, Miss Carlisle,” Jennings said.  “for allowing me to be of service to you.”

_________________________________________

Lady Morton intercepted Jennings as he made his way downstairs from Elizabeth’s room.

“Mr. Jennings,” she said, lightly touching his shoulder.  “I don’t suppose I could trouble you to walk with me?”  She looked around her – as though she feared being overheard – and added, “I would ask your opinion of something that my groundskeeper discovered.”

She led Jennings out to the balcony where Elizabeth had been abducted.  “Mr. Jennings,” she began, and touched his shoulder again.  “Christopher.  I have known your family since long before you were born.  I am aware of your mother’s …”  She paused, searching for the appropriate words.  “Her gifts,” she said finally.  “I was one of the few she trusted with the knowledge, in fact, and you needn’t fear that I would betray her confidence, or yours.”

Jennings felt a stab of nervousness, but he attempted to conceal it as he responded to Lady Morton.  “I am uncertain of your meaning, ma’am.  To what confidence do you refer?”

Lady Morton gave him a small, sympathetic smile.  “I quite understand, dear boy,” she said.  “How … how society might view such a gift.  And so I kept your mother’s confidence all these years, even now that she is gone.  But I saw for myself that your poor sister had inherited her mother’s talents, and things your mother said cause me to believe that you yourself have inherited them as well.”  Jennings opened his mouth to plead ignorance once more, but Lady Morton held a hand up.  “Your sudden return the other night, and your ability to find Miss Carlisle – hidden as she was beneath the leaves! – are far more proof than you can refute to me.”

She looked at him for a long moment, and he at her.  He saw nothing in her eyes to alarm him – she held the same kind expression she had always had for almost everyone she met – but he had learned as a small boy to hide the slate and his connection to it, and he was loth to admit to it now.  But he did see in her a knowing, and an implacability that silently assailed every argument that came to his mind.  His gaze wavered, and he swallowed a slight lump in his throat before saying quietly, “What did you wish to show me, Lady Morton?”

She smiled more broadly, and nodded her head in approval.  “Good lad,” she said.  She gestured to the railing over which Elizabeth had been so violently dragged.  “On the other side, sir,” she said, walking to the railing and leaning over it.  “There is a stain on the stone.”

Jennings approached the railing, his nervousness at being discovered quickly replaced with curiosity.  As he leaned out to see the spot Lady Morton indicated, he was beset by an uncharacteristic vertigo, and his hand reached out instinctively to grasp the top of the parapet.  His vision swam, not so much from dizziness, as from the memory of dizziness – of Elizabeth’s abrupt flight through the night air and into the park.  As though he were seeing the events through Elizabeth’s eyes, he felt her experiences:  being lifted by strong and angry claws, being pulled over the stone rail that ripped at the edge of her gown, being cast down to the ground by something far, far larger than she.

“It’s a monster,” Jennings breathed, closing his eyes for a moment as his balance steadied.  “A great monster that carried her off this balcony in a trice.”

“That is what she described,” Lady Morton agreed, frowning in concern.  “Are you quite all right, Mr. Jennings?”

“I am,” he assured her, opening his eyes again and examining the railing.  On the outer edge he saw a patch of reddish-brown, flanked along one side by a yellow-green smear.  “What is that?” he murmured, leaning closer to it.  It had the general appearance of blood, but it seemed too orange at its heart to be so, and the yellowish smear emerged from it as though whatever had bled there had been covered in some viscous substance.  “Strange,” he said, straightening up and looking over at Lady Morton.  “It’s almost as though a very large frog scraped up against it!”

“That is rather what I thought,” Lady Morton said.  “But surely someone would have seen a creature the size of which Lizzie describes?  How could it have gone unseen?”

“I’m puzzled by that too,” Jennings said.  “But I suppose if it was watching her, it might have waited until she was quite alone.  It was very late, after all, and most of the guests had moved inside.”

Lady Morton’s expression had turned decidedly dark.  “I considered that, too, Mr. Jennings,” she said somberly.  “But how could a – well, a giant frog – be the sort of thing that was watching her?  It would need to possess some special intelligence, would it not?”

Jennings nodded slowly as he contemplated her words.  “It would indeed, Lady Morton,” he said.  “Something beyond the norm, I would imagine, for the sorts of animals that roam England – even the large ones.”

“Good God, Mr. Jennings,” Lady Morton breathed, her fingers partially covering her mouth.  “What are we saying?”  She looked again at the mark on the railing.  “If this was a man,” she asked.  “Then how could he have spirited her away so quickly and silently?  If it was a man, how did he leave such a stain on the wall?”

“I think it cannot have been a man, ma’am,” Jennings said gravely.  “But I think it must have been a man holding the reins.”  His eyes narrowed.  “Who on earth would have wanted so badly to hurt Miss Carlisle?”

“I do not know, sir,” Lady Morton said, her eyes filling with tears.  “But if it was particular to her, then I fear she is still not safe!  And if it was not particular to her, then are any of us safe?  Even in our own homes?”

Jennings did not appear to have heard her questions; he stretched his hand out rather tentatively toward the blood stain, and allowed his fingertips to touch the dark surface of it.

Instantly his hand jerked back as though he had touched fire.  He cradled it in his other hand and took a stumbling step backward.  “Ring,” he gasped.  “Kill her!  Kill her!”  He sank to his knees, still holding one hand in the other, and leaned against the railing.  “Take the ring.”

“Mr. Jennings!” Lady Morton cried out, quickly bending down beside him.  “Christopher!  Are you all right? Temple!” she called into the house.  “Fetch brandy, at once!”

“I believe I am fine, ma’am,” Jennings said, his voice thin.  “It took me rather by surprise.”  When he had touched the stain, he had been overwhelmed by a feeling of being in pursuit of a quarry, that no other thought existed but to capture and kill that quarry.  He saw a brief flash of Elizabeth, and then of a necklace she wore – a chain with a ring suspended from it, that he remembered seeing when he danced with her.  He could not remember seeing it upon her when he found her.  He thought for a moment to go into the park and search for it in the dirt under the trees, but the final image that had assailed him, before his hand pulled away from the stain, was of a huge and hideous clawed hand ripping the chain from around Elizabeth’s neck.  “It took her ring,” he said.  “It wanted specifically to kill her and to take her ring.”  He slumped against the parapet, his breathing ragged as though he had run a long way.

“Good God!” Lady Morton exclaimed again.  “Why, for goodness’ sake, would anyone want to kill her?  Why would a ring be so important?”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Jennings said, still winded.  “But I plan to find out.”

_____________________________________________

His intense vision on Lady Morton’s balcony had left Jennings a bit rattled, so that he found, to his annoyance, that his hands were still shaking as he climbed the steps to Sir James Carlisle’s house.  He had met Sir James any number of times at various functions, but they traveled in such different circles that their acquaintance was slight; he was uncertain whether Sir James would recognize him or, if he did, whether such acquaintance would benefit his purpose here or harm it.  One never quite knew what to expect from Sir James, especially when he was upset by something.

The porter, a thin, wary-looking man, opened the door and asked in rather abrupt tones, “Can I help you, sir?”

Jennings gave a small nod of his head by way of greeting, and replied affably, “I am Christopher Jennings.  I am lately engaged to Miss Elizabeth Carlisle, and I have come to arrange for the delivery of her belongings to my home.”

The porter’s wariness faded somewhat, and his expression betrayed relief.  “Indeed, sir,” he said, his voice much warmer now.  “Please come in.  I will let Sir James know that you are here.”

Jennings followed the porter into the front hallway of a very elegantly appointed house.  After the porter disappeared through a door at the far end of the hall, Jennings contented himself examining a nearby glass case full of miniature portraits.  Tucked into the back of the case, barely visible, was the likeness of what he could only assume was Elizabeth’s mother: the colouring was quite different, but the eyes that looked back at him were Elizabeth’s eyes, and the dimpled smile was the same.  “Please know, ma’am,” he murmured, running his finger lightly over the glass above the portrait.  “That I will endeavour to bring your daughter all happiness.”

Behind him, the porter emerged from the recesses of the house and cleared his throat.  “Sir James will see you in the library, sir.”  He indicated the door through which he had just passed.  “Follow me, if you please.”

Jennings, in hopes of preventing unnecessary conflict, suppressed all disapprobation of Sir James’ actions or temperament, and put on his face an expression of easy-going amiability.  He trotted dutifully after the porter, and walked with as pleasant an air as he could muster into the library.

The room was full of light and windows, but the walls were paneled with heavy dark wood and lined with shelves that groaned under the weight of countless books.  The furniture was equally dark and heavy, and the man who sat behind the large, fairly imposing desk complemented the room with his serious and vaguely irritated countenance.

“Christopher Jennings!” he said, speaking much more loudly than was warranted by the size of the room.  “Why, I know you!”  He came to his feet and made a perfunctory bow, which Jennings returned with exacting politeness.  “Hawkins tells me that you are engaged to Miss Carlisle,” the man went on, shoving his hands into his pockets and casting an appraising eye over Jennings.  “And are you, then, the one who treated her so rough?”

Jennings was surprised that Sir James acknowledged Elizabeth’s injuries; his letter to Lady Morton and his absence at his daughter’s bedside had caused Jennings to suppose he did not believe anything that had been said of the attack.  “Indeed, no, sir,” he answered somberly.  “I was the one who found her, sir.”

“Ah,” Sir James said.  He looked askance at his visitor for a few seconds, and then continued, still at a near bellow, “I suppose you find me hard-hearted, sir, but I cannot countenance her running off from her chaperone – at near on two in the morning! – and behaving with such total lack of propriety!  Crying out now for pity because she received her come-uppance!  It can’t be borne!”

Jennings’ diligently benign expression now revealed a sincere sadness; he tilted his head to one side as he looked back at Sir James.  “Quite the reverse, sir,” he said frankly.  “I can well understand that running off into the park in the middle of the night is a violation of propriety, and that if she was meeting clandestinely with a lover, such behaviour might not be approved of by her father.  I can also understand that her account of events – being stolen by force from the balcony – does not sound particularly likely.  What I cannot understand, sir,” he added, in exceedingly respectful tones.  “Is your reluctance to see her or to care for her when she has been hurt so badly.”

Sir James, unaccustomed to people giving their true opinions, however respectfully, was somewhat taken aback by Jennings forthright statement.  “It was not easy, sir!” he protested, leaning forward and putting his hands on the top of the massive desk.  “But the daughter I raised – to be a proper young lady! – died that night in the park, or never existed!  She is as much a stranger to me and to all I have attempted to instill in her as you are!  I hold myself to the standard I have asked her to follow, and I do not recognize this girl who leaves her poor step-mama for an assignation in the park!”  His bellow had become a roar, and his face had become quite red as he defended his position.  Suddenly he seemed to remember himself, and he took a step back from the desk and breathed a great sigh.  “I do not require your understanding, sir!” he said more calmly, plunging his hands back in his pockets.  “But if you are determined to take on a woman who has shown herself to be the veriest trollop, then I wish you luck!”  He straightened to his fullest height, and said with some pomposity, “Now if you will excuse me, I am quite busy this day, and do not have time to converse with you on a subject so painful to me!”

“Painful,” Jennings repeated softly.  He clasped his hands behind his back and said brightly, “I quite understand, sir!  Please forgive me; I would not dream of importuning you!  As I informed your porter, I have come only to arrange for Miss Carlisle’s belongings to be delivered to my house in town.”  He stood with an air of blithe expectancy.

“I sent a trunk,” Sir James said tersely.  “With her clothes.  I can’t imagine she wants for anything else.  I have lost my daughter, Jennings,” he pointed out indignantly, as though Jennings were cruelly obliging him to think on things better forgotten.  “The sweet girl I once knew is clearly gone, and I will not be put to the trouble of collecting her baubles, when the sight of them reminds me so well of what she has become!”

“Then all parties would benefit by the hasty removal of all her possessions,” Jennings said congenially.  “If seeing her things here disturbs you, then I am most happy to remove them from you entirely.”

Sir James’ jaw tightened visibly.  “Don’t think you can fool me!” he exclaimed stridently.  “You may not care to trifle with me, my boy!”

Jennings’ eyes narrowed, and he took a step forward.  His hands, still behind his back, were now clasped rather tightly, but outwardly his entire manner was relaxed, almost languid.  His smile had faded, but it lingered wryly at the corners of his mouth.  “You are older,” he said, his voice barely above a murmur.  “But I think not wiser.”  He glanced briefly at the room around him, and then brought his sardonic gaze back to Sir James, whose outraged response he forestalled by continuing smoothly, “And I am sure – quite sure – that I am much, much richer than you.  So perhaps it is you who should not trifle with me.”  His smile left entirely, and he said crisply, “I expect all of Miss Elizabeth’s belongings – all of them – delivered to my doorstep by the morrow.”  He gave a cursory bow to Sir James, hardly more than a nod of his head.  “Sir,” he said, and turning abruptly around, he strode purposefully out of the library without looking back.

The Thing I Like About …

Equilibrium:  the part when the feelings-detector goes cold.  [Warning: spoiler alert]

In Equilibrium, no one is allowed to feel emotion; as the cause of all humanity’s suffering, it has been abolished (via a chemical solution), and anyone caught feeling – or trafficking in sensory objects such as paintings, books, music, or baubles – is summarily executed.  We follow John Preston, a Grammaton cleric (the elite, almost-automaton force that finds and eradicates sense-offenders), as he inadvertently finds feelings, and, through them, begins to question the wisdom and ethics of what he and his government have done.

Of course he becomes part of the underground.  Of course he is being watched by his own people.  Of course, because it is an action movie, John Preston is a total ninja – displaying incredible martial arts skills while dispatching the “wicked” without expression or remorse.  As he develops more feelings, however, he grows increasingly unable to control them, and his ability to do his job dwindles to the point of extinction.  His emotions also trump his intuitive training – he becomes easier to misdirect, at least by those who spend their lives misdirecting others – and when he sits in the chair connected to the feelings-detector, he seems less hurt by the fact that he has been set up than by the fact that he allowed himself to be duped.  In a few seconds, his face reflects every emotion he’s having:  betrayal, incredulity, sadness, self-criticism, anger … and all the while, the little needle on the paper is moving so frantically that we see more ink than paper.  From pragmatic, emotionless cleric, John has been reduced to a man so overwhelmed by emotion that he trembles while deciding which one to feel first.

But then he remembers: he is a Grammaton cleric.  He is a total ninja with incredible martial arts skills.  His extensive training allows him to dispatch the wicked without expression or remorse.  The emotions leave his face, and the little needle of the feelings-detector stops moving – one line on the paper.

And then he dispatches the wicked.

Is the movie about how wrong it is to suppress human emotions?  Yes.  Is it about how futile it is to try to suppress human emotions?  Of course.  But in that instant, when the detector goes cold, we see why it’s wrong and futile – human emotions have little to do with what John does, but everything to do with who he does it to.  Emotions – like empathy, love, betrayal – allow him to see who is really wicked; emotions allow him to make ethical distinctions, to judge what is good and what is evil.  And what does he do with all those things that emotions allow him to see? – he acts in a way completely devoid of emotion of any kind.  In a society that had hoped emotionlessness would be the answer to evil, John Preston shows them that emotions and actions are two entirely different things – that ultimately emotions only change the balance between who we protect and who we destroy.

John chooses to act for the sake of good – a choice he could not have made without feelings.  He chooses to become an overwhelming force against those who try to control others, using the very tools the “bad guys” gave him.  He’s certainly intimidating as an implacable cleric, but when he puts his heart into it … he’s unstoppable.