Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Butterflies and Hurricanes

The jury was still out when I decided to confront my client. We tend to grant superlatives to the least deserving things, but in terms of importance, this trial might as well have been biblical, not because of the defendant but her victim, whose story no one would ever properly know. That was the chief source of my wrath.

“I want a little honesty. You owe me this much, and at this point, it won’t even matter.”

She was feeling dodgy, that much I could tell. Whether there was any remorse, I don’t think this was ever the stage for that kind of reveal, but I saw in her fidgeting that the position in a seat wouldn’t give away. This was to be my moment. This was to be some vindication.

“Do we have to talk about this right now? What does it even matter now?”

“It doesn’t matter at all, but I just thought you would appreciate a little honesty, now that we’ve come to the end of it. I didn’t get a chance to speak at all during any of the sessions. Now’s my chance, and yours. The game’s afoot.”

“Who do you think you are, anyway?”

“I’m the little voice that will haunt you, the whisper you will hear the rest of your life. I’m what you will remember, and I may have only a few moments to make my impression, but I will make more of them than you did in the five years it took for you to make your decision. You won’t appreciate it now, but give it time.

“I’ve been sitting here this whole time, listening to your version of the story, and it just didn’t hold up. I was supposed to be on your side, I knew every argument, every piece of evidence, every testimony in your favor, and none of it mattered to me. Do you know how I spent most of my time? Drawing butterflies and hurricanes in the margins of my notes. Want to have a look? Didn’t think so. Don’t worry, I’ve done that all my life. I didn’t mean to imply anything by them. Just something random that came to mind, some common things I ended up thinking about again for no reason. I don’t mean to insult you, I swear.

“It was therapeutic, though. They’re so easy to draw, some of the most basic shapes in nature. I think that’s why we like them so much, just some elementary loops that have no consequence except what we make of them, either by looking at a butterfly and remarking how pretty it is, or building a house in the known path of a hurricane. We all think we’re Dorothy. We think we’ll get something useful out of destruction.

“I suppose we sometimes do, and it’d be wrong of me to suggest otherwise. Why lower myself to your level? You thought you could ensnare something beautiful and poison it without hurting yourself. That’s what I’m telling you. You were wrong. No matter what the jury says, you were wrong. That’s why I’m saying this to you now. I know plenty of people have already voiced that sentiment, shouted it to you from the leverage of a crowd, but I’m the first voice you’ve heard directly saying it. Here I am, supposed to be arguing your innocence. That time’s over. We’ve dropped pretenses now.

“Let me tell you a story. Several years ago, there was a man put on trial. Such a big deal was made out of it, somehow to the extent that it was deemed the trial of the century, despite the fact that it held absolutely no social relevance other than what was made of it, that we began to believe that it was indeed important, that it actually mattered whether or not this man was guilty, or that, once he had been acquitted, that he had somehow gotten away with something. I wasn’t practicing the bar at that time, but had found myself involved anyway, a personal confidant for this man, who would one day write a book detailing a fictional account of why he might have done it anyway.

“He didn’t know if he should go through with it. All those people who had fussied themselves into thinking they cared about this matter would only be incensed further, and all he seemed to care about was getting his side of whatever story there still remained out, as if everyone did not already know every last detail. To anyone else, he knew it wouldn’t make any sense, even thinking about it. To him, of course, it was still his life. I don’t mean to belittle the feelings of those who were actually personally involved. Their grief was real, and their belief exactly as they were entitled to. It was later that they would meddle further, seeking a further sense of justice out of an unjustly sensationalized moment now years in the past.

“How can I describe the circumstances that had placed me in that position? I guess it can best be described as being in the right place at the right time, with just a little further explanation. I was in the right frame of mind, too. What to be said about a man who had stumbled into everything the American Dream has to offer, who gamely followed every trail of opportunity, and whose reward seemed to be a perfect life and an attitude that simply wasn’t in the right place? He seemed to have grown frustrated, an unease you could identify with settling in, unprovoked anger and malice sneaking its way into his life, little by little. How was he to account for it? It’s tough to be a saint in paradise. There’s nothing to aim for, nothing left to prove.

“He seemed to stumble into me. That’s when people are most receptive to confession, not when provoked but when it’s needed. Change is a result of opportunity. It isn’t a decision. Like I said, I had been in the right place at the right time, and had the right frame of mind, too. People are always waiting for those who will sympathize with them to reveal who they really are. Most of life is a dream, an act, just a lot of posturing. This man had been living that dream for a long time, and it was the trial that had woken him up, not because he had found someone who would finally understand him, but because he discovered he no longer had the luxury of it.

“Murderers are people who are only comfortable when they are killing. They are living their dream just as anyone else does. This man was not a murderer. I don’t know if he was innocent. I don’t think it even matters, except I could see it in his face. This man was not a murderer. He was not living his dream. It wasn’t the trial that had broken him, but the act of rude awakening that had been forced into his life because of it. He asked me a simple question:

‘Is there more than this? Is this all that I have become?’

“He wanted reassurance, that’s all. That’s all we ever want, acknowledgment that we are not the fool, the pariah on whose shoulders the world, like Atlas, must be placed. What benefit such a man? Only the fool, only the pariah, would accept that burden. This man was neither, but he was forced into each role, and the fit was poor. He was ill-equipped, and that was what troubled him. He whole previous existence, his charmed life, seemed less a dream now than a delusion, something he should have woken up from after a college weekend, or a night of a child’s first horror movie, when all things suddenly seem possible, even the worst of them. Especially.

“He never brought up the book. He was just looking for a friendly face. He had no family now, after all, no children to reassure him in their way, without words, and in that way, I assume, came his idea to fashion some respite from words, a revenge no one would take seriously, but something he needed.

“All I said to him was that I hoped he was sleeping well, a generic remark, something an old friend might say if nothing else came to mind, but I was no old friend, and plenty of things had crowded my thoughts. For one, I knew he was guilty.

“I knew just as well as the rest of the country that he was just as guilty as innocent, but I guess it didn’t matter. When I looked at this man, I didn’t see guilty, I saw innocent, and I guess that’s what confounded everyone for all those months, made them so angry about it, like they had been betrayed, except, like I said, he had never really asked for any of it. Some things just happen. I saw him and made a stupid remark, and I guess confirmed for him what he had to do, and I think that’s how most things get done, not because we’ve spend a lot time brooding over them, but because in some moment of clarity, they seem like the right thing to do.

“That’s probably the same way you reached your decision, but save it, I don’t really want to know, and I don’t think you really want to tell me. It doesn’t matter now, anyway. But there are things you ought to know, things I feel like sharing with you, whether you deserve it or not. I’m granting you a courtesy, showing you some respect, some basic humanity.

“The man you murdered was special, but he was not the only one. You’d known him how long? You thought you knew everything there was to know? Well, you missed a handful of centuries. Don’t worry, I knew him, and what you came to know is just about all there ever was to him. He was an open book, except for that one big secret. If he let you know him at all, and you let yourself understand anything, then you knew him, whether you shared a lifetime or just a few years with him.

“Hey, I’m still not sure myself whether he was really worth all the trouble, so maybe you were, and decided something that was coming to him for a long time. Maybe he was worth something, maybe he wasn’t, and you spared him a lot more time wasting space. Baby, that wasn’t really your call, but I guess we’re going to find out about that.

“What he was, however, was more than just a waste of space. He was…a sort of guardian, and like I said, he wasn’t the only one. He watched over the rest of humanity, just kind of lived with it. In his case, maybe that’s all he really did. Me, I’ve always tried a more active stance, but since I’m here talking to you as an assistant prosecutor, you’ll notice that I don’t stick my neck out very far. We’ve generally played it safe for a long time now.

“Your man deserved better than you, but he chose you, and for whatever reason, he was right, at least for a while. You made it work. Maybe you never knew exactly what was going on, but you did. Or maybe you knew from the start. You knew exactly what he was. You knew he was special, not the way he knew you were special, more like you realized what you were. A leach.

“We’ve seen a lot of your kind, who aren’t necessary evil, but who take what isn’t theirs, assume it’s their right, opportunists who don’t understand what they’re doing, only that it’s easy and they can’t think of a good reason why they shouldn’t, only that it looks like a fun way to pass the time, something to make a life out of. Only, they’re frauds, leaches. They give nothing, expect everything.

“Let me explain the doodles a little more. I thought they were fun. The butterflies and the hurricanes. To me, because it was all I could think of during the trial, they represent you. I know, people generally think only pleasant thoughts about butterflies. What beautiful little fluttery things. One bat of their wing and they can change the destiny of someone halfway across the world, without even thinking about it. That’s the theory, the butterfly effect. Hurricanes are the opposite, inherently destructive, but they’re just a matter of nature, and they harm nothing permanently, nothing that was designed the right way, anyway. We’ve observed that things happen almost as a matter of chance, unanimously. There’s almost never a lot of thought involved, so in a way, you’re not really guilty at all. Hey, you’re innocent, too. Say I’m arguing Fate.

“The thing is, even if Fate is real, free will is the part where we’re left to suffer the consequences, knowing what role we played in how things turned out, whether we’re the butterfly that didn’t realize what it was doing, caused some change and was appreciated for its beauty one way or another, or the hurricane, which did only what it was supposed to do, caused some change, and was blamed for what it was. Free will is the ability to see in black and white. Fate is the gray area, the unseen force, free will the butterfly, Fate the hurricane.

“I’ve been telling you all this just to be sure you think about it. I’ve decided that my only real interest in this role I’ve been given is to do that. Maybe that’s what he was doing, too, only in a way I never understood, or will later. That’s the beauty of it to me, that we’ve always got the time to do that. Well, he did, anyway. But thankfully for you, I think he was ahead of the curve. How about you?”

She had tried butting in a few times, but after a while, she gave up, and I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about it. What did I owe her, except what I had given her? In truth, I don’t think she cared about a single thing I said, only that it was in the sequence of something that mattered to her, because in a strange way, she had finally found something she couldn’t avoid, and I think that’s probably as much her story as anything else. This man, this husband she had poisoned, whose body wasn’t discovered for weeks, locked away in some summer cottage on a lake in Maine, had stumbled into the one trap he had never anticipated, and it wasn’t what he had thought. He had a note clutched into one of his hands reading “first door on the left,” but the investigators never figured out what it meant, and it played no part in the trial. There was only ever one suspect.

I think I knew what it meant, and had it been discovered by some stranger, probably would have become exactly what he intended, but in a final twist, he was denied this final wish, and whatever doubt there might have been concerning his murder, well…The note wouldn’t have cleared it up. But reading it, I knew, and in the end, I guess that’s all that mattered. The world wouldn’t have been ready for him.

The jurors are making their way back into the courtroom. I began this account by saying this was a trial of biblical proportions, but the truth is it’s far more provincial. No major news outlets are covering it, only the county beat reporter lazily taking notes, a local TV correspondent and her cameraman taking some footage for a segment no one will remember next week, and I guess that’s exactly how it should end, like it never really mattered.

Only, to some, it did.

“We the jury find the defendant Katheryne Lange guilty.”