Ordinarily, the sorts of notices you get by mail these days are quite boring and non-urgent, easily ignored, so you’ll forgive me when I admit that we didn’t open up the letter about Edmund for a week. It had a county return address, which usually meant that we’d forgotten to pay a bit of property tax or that —surprise!— all dogs need to be registered or risk being put down if found wandering about or possibly something truly, incredibly riveting like our voter registration cards.
It does not usually mean that you have a relative being released from a high security prison in a few weeks and that you need to collect them, please, in order for the conditions of their parole to be maintained. The correspondence inside usually doesn’t go on, then, to explain that the said relative committed the crime several hundred years before and has only now become eligible for parole. And even if it does say that, it doesn’t go on to explain that eight-hundred-year-old criminals are only permitted to go free if lodging with direct family members for the duration of their parole.
But that was what the county return address meant on this letter. Inside the envelope bearing the country return address was another, slightly more battered envelope with a royal air mail stamp on it, and it was in this envelope that we learned that Edmund was meant to come stay with us for a year until his secondary hearing by the District Court of Secondary Instances.
I had never heard of the District Court of Secondary Instances, but I’d never been to England, either, so what did I know?
Eight hundred years.
The letter did not explain exactly how he was still alive. Also notably absent was a description of his crime.
It would not be convenient to take Edmund in. We were not a very rich family. My father sold some sort of imaging software to doctors’ offices, which meant that he was away from home as often as he was home. My mother was a manager for a Dollar Tree. My younger brother was in college, studying to be a drunk. And I was a useless daughter who still lived at home, dating only her journal entries and sleeping only with her masters in English.
But my mother —surprise!— was as unable to turn Edmund away as she’d been to tell me to move out. So Edmund got on a plane and Harry (rarely sober little brother) and I got sent to the airport to pick him up. I had said I could go myself, because my Mazda barely fits two people, much less three, but my mother said that Edmund was a criminal, after all, and she would hate for my first sexual experience, at age 26, to be rape by a 800-year-old man.
My mother is hilarious like that.
Edmund flew into BWI, in Baltimore, and after parking the Mazda in one of the seven spheres of hell available there, Harry and I headed into the terminal. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting Edmund to look like. I anticipated a beard, at the very least. We were all pretty foggy on what was happening in British history in the twelfth century, which was when Edmund supposedly committed his crime. Twelfth century. Was that . . . Anglo-Saxon England? Vikings? Beards seemed like a safe bet. Beards seemed historical.
But there was no one with a beard waiting by the baggage carousel. There was not much of anyone at the baggage carousel, actually, because it had taken so long to park. There was only one person, a rather bored-looking young man with somewhat oily curls, a rather manky bit of stubble down his cheeks, and a tiny, lip-hugging mustache that made me think of World War I pilots. Something about his posture, a duffle bag slung over his shoulder, was lazily arrogant. The word that sprang to mind was unrehabilitated. Was that a word? Regardless, he looked like prison had not fazed him. Or possibly it had and he had been even cockier beforehand.
“I’ll bet that loser is him,” Harry said, which was all sorts of pots calling kettles shades of black. “Mom’s going to be thrilled.”
He swaggered up to the curly man, full of the confidence of a rarely-sober sophomore, and said loudly, “Dude, are you Edmund?”
Edmund, smooth and bored, said, “Your mother calls me Ed.”
This yo-mama joke was even more hilarious as my mother had been jokingly calling him Ed in our conversations about his arrival.
“Cool,” said Harry. “Your mother calls me Harry. And sometimes ‘her majesty’. And sometimes just ‘oh God!’ ”
Edmund punched Harry in the mouth.
It was a casual punch, though, a comradely punch, a punch meant to remind Harry that he was 19 and Edmund was 800, not a punch to break a nose or ruin the manly beauty of one’s jawline. Harry pushed himself heavily to his feet and made sure he still had his teeth.
“You’ll be fine,” Edmund told him. He paused. “Just like your mother.”
This was the point where I broke in. I ordinarily did everything in my power to avoid conversation, but I could see how this could become a circular experience of mother insults and punches if I didn’t. I jingled the car keys and pointed out that we had to pay for parking if we stayed for longer than twenty minutes. Just in time, too: An airline employee had paused in mid stride to stare. Edmund clapped Harry on the shoulder. The employee moved on. Harry took Edmund’s bag. Edmund padded toward me.
It was an auspicious start. All introductions to historical personages should go so smoothly. I couldn’t really fault Harry; I didn’t really say anything at all. Mostly, what I wanted to do was ask questions that were probably quite rude. I wanted to know why he looked like he was in his thirties when the paperwork said he’d been imprisoned for a few centuries. I wanted to ask what his crime had been. I wanted to know if he’d been contained in solution or frozen in carbonite like Hans Solo. But I just had a feeling these were like asking someone where they’d gotten that giant scar on their face or how long it had been since their wife left them. So I just drove Edmund back home and then Harry back to his dorm.
By the time I got back to the house, Edmund had been installed in Harry’s room and my mother was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee and rubbing the skin under her eyes. I recognized the expression. It was the same one she’d had when she’d let us bring back a stray dog we found at the dump. The dog had lost no time peeing on the rug and eating a hole through the bathroom wall, and Mom had acquired this expression. It was the what have we gotten into? face.
“Did he pee on the rug?” I asked Mom.
She said bleakly, “He’s younger than I imagined.”
“Men in their thirties are so much trouble,” I said. I was only slightly joking.
“His accent is hard,” she said.
“It’s called ‘British’.”
“It’s not normal British.”
“Probably normal eight hundred years ago.”
She said, “I’m buying us both some mace tomorrow.”
All those years ago, with the stray dog, my mother had immediately taken the dog to the vet to be neutered. I would have bet good money that she was wishing this were an option this time as well.
“Where is he?” I asked. Mom gestured wordlessly in the direction of the back deck. She was deep in the regret stage of her philanthropy and had nothing more to say.
I retrieved two beers from the drawer of the fridge and slid the deck door open. Edmund leaned on his elbows and looked out into the deep blue evening. It wasn’t much of a view. From our deck you can see neighbors’ decks on three sides, and on many evenings, you can find three sets of neighbors looking back at you. It’s a sort of benevolent prison as well.
“Oh, it’s the girl without a tongue,” Edmund said.
I handed him a beer.
“Better than a tongue,” he said.
I leaned on the deck railing near him and for a few moments, we both nursed our beers and looked at the greasily dark air.
“What did you do?” I asked.
Unimpressed, I clarified, “What did you do to make my mother regret having you here?”
He rolled his head on his shoulders; it clicked audibly. Not as audibly as I’d expect from an 800-year-old man, but audibly enough. “Merely refused to talk about how I’d come to be in this position.”
“You’re going to be under our roof for a year,” I said. “We deserve to know.”
“Deserve—! It doesn’t even matter any more,” he said. “It was centuries ago. A principle or endeavor will mean the world to you, you go to sleep for eight hundred years, when you wake up, it means less than nothing. It was less than a dream.”
That, I thought, was precisely what college had done for me. I had had so many plans that kept me up at night, and then I went to school for seven years. I emerged and I couldn’t even remember the first thing that I had wanted to do with myself.
“Whatever you did was awful enough to give you a very long sentence,” I said. “I don’t think we care about what it was that you did. At least, I don’t. I care if you’re still the person that would do what you did. Do people change if you sleep for eight hundred years? Is that what you were doing?”
“I slept until last May,” he said. “I was studied until this May. I am not a criminal; I’m an experiment. I’ve discovered all of my sins have become historical.”
Yes, what do you do when you grow up and all of the demons of your teen years disappear? What do you do when the only villain is yourself? Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have pressed the conversation, but I was a lightweight, and it only took one beer to make me braver. I asked, “What are you going to do, then? Now that what you wanted is irrelevant?”
Edmund tipped back his beer before answering, “I preferred you when you were silent.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“That’s because it’s not about me,” Edmund replied. I noticed, then, that he still had his duffle bag at his feet. I’d have thought that he would have put it in his room by now. He tilted his head toward me, still cocky, still youthful. None of those hundreds of years seemed to weigh on him at all. “Really you want me to answer a question about yourself. Burden of your gender, I expect.”
My mouth opened and then closed.
Edmund finished his beer. He put it down on the deck railing and heaved his duffle bag over his shoulder. “I shall just be a child again. There is your answer for you. I will go back to the beginning and I will find a new principle and dream and I will chase it.”
“Just like that!” I burst out.
Edmund leapt neatly over the deck railing; he landed soft as soft in the lawn on the other side, his duffle bag still in hand. Looking back up at me, his eyes glinted like a raccoon’s in the dark. “Just like that. Only this time — I will not be caught.”
He waved jauntily at me and sauntered between the prison bars made of decking and flower beds, easy as if they weren’t there at all. It was as if he had never been here at all, except that there were two beer bottles here on the deck and I would’ve never drank two bottles of beer in one sitting. It was as if he had never been here at all, except that all I could think about how fresh-faced he was after eight hundred years had robbed him of his reason for existence.
In the morning, my mother wrote a letter to the county explaining that she was very sorry, but we had lost our distant criminal relative and no one had explained that he might be a flight risk or sent along any mace and she hadn’t liked him very much anyway.
In the afternoon, I packed my things into my Mazda and left. It was like the past eight hundred years had never happened.
Author’s note: inspired by correspondence with official return addresses.
image courtesy: Chris Devers.