The Goldfinch PDF
Donna Tartt, author of the bestselling novels The Secret History and The Little Friend, has published her much anticipated third book, The Goldfinch.
A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and determined to avoid being taken in by the city as an orphan, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and on the city streets. He becomes entranced by the one thing that reminds him of his mother, a small, mysteriously captivating painting that soon draws Theo into the art underworld.
Here we share an excerpt in two parts, in which we meet thirteen-year-old Theo Decker who is taken in by the family of a friend after his mother dies and his father abandons him. He clings onto a small painting that reminds him of her, which draws him into the world of underground art.
But first watch this video where Donna Tartt is being interviewed on The Goldfinch PDF:
Excerpt 1 The Goldfinch PDF
Things would have turned out better if my mother had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.
Her death the dividing mark: Before and After. And though it’s a bleak thing to admit all these years later, still I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did. Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colours than ordinary – I remember a few weeks before she died, eating a late supper with her in an Italian restaurant down in the Village, and how she grasped my sleeve at the sudden, almost painful loveliness of a birthday cake with lit candles being carried in procession from the kitchen, faint circle of light wavering in across the dark ceiling and then the cake set down to blaze amidst the family, beatifying an old lady’s face, smiles all round, waiters stepping away with their hands behind their backs – just an ordinary birthday dinner you might see anywhere in an inexpensive downtown restaurant, and I’m sure I wouldn’t even remember it had she not died so soon after, but I thought about it again and again after her death and indeed I’ll probably think about it all my life: that candlelit circle, a tableau vivant of the daily, commonplace happiness that was lost when I lost her.
She was beautiful, too. That’s almost secondary; but still, she was. When she came to New York fresh from Kansas, she worked part-time as a model though she was too uneasy in front of the camera to be very good at it; whatever she had, it didn’t translate to film.
And yet she was wholly herself: a rarity. I cannot recall ever seeing another person who really resembled her. She had black hair, fair skin that freckled in summer, china-blue eyes with a lot of light in them; and in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic. In fact, she was half Irish, half Cherokee, from a town in Kansas near the Oklahoma border; and she liked to make me laugh by calling herself an Okie even though she was as glossy and nervy and stylish as a racehorse. That exotic character unfortunately comes out a little too stark and unforgiving in photographs – her freckles covered with makeup, her hair pulled back in a ponytail at the nape of her neck like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji – and what doesn’t come across at all is her warmth, her merry, unpredictable quality, which is what I loved about her most. It’s clear, from the stillness she emanates in pictures, how much she mistrusted the camera; she gives off a watchful, tigerish air of steeling herself against attack. But in life she wasn’t like that. She moved with a thrilling quickness, gestures sudden and light, always perched on the edge of her chair like some long elegant marsh-bird about to startle and fly away. I loved the sandalwood perfume she wore, rough and unexpected, and I loved the rustle of her starched shirt when she swooped down to kiss me on the forehead. And her laugh was enough to make you want to kick over what you were doing and follow her down the street. Wherever she went, men looked at her out of the corner of their eyes, and sometimes they used to look at her in a way that bothered me a little.
Her death was my fault. Other people have always been a little too quick to assure me that it wasn’t; and yes, only a kid, who could have known, terrible accident, rotten luck, could have happened to anyone, it’s all perfectly true and I don’t believe a word of it.
End of Excerpt 1 The Goldfinch PDF
Excerpt 2 The Goldfinch PDF
I don’t know how long I was out. When I came to, it seemed as if I was flat on my stomach in a sandbox, on some dark playground – someplace I didn’t know, a deserted neighbourhood. Somebody had beaten me up pretty good: I ached all over, my ribs were sore and my head felt like someone had hit me with a lead pipe. I was working my jaw back and forth and reaching for my pockets to see if I had the train fare home when it came over me abruptly that I had no clue where I was. Stiffly I lay there, in the growing consciousness that something was badly out of joint. The light was all wrong, and so was the air: acrid and sharp, a chemical fog that burnt my throat. The gum in my mouth was gritty, and when – head pounding – I rolled over to spit it out, I found myself blinking through layers of smoke at something so foreign I stared for some moments without understanding.
I was in a ragged white cave. Swags and tatters dangled from the ceiling. The ground was tumbled and bucked-up with heaps of a grey substance like moon rock, and blown about with broken glass and gravel and a hurricane of random trash, bricks and slag and papery stuff frosted with a thin ash like first frost. High overhead, a pair of lamps beamed through the dust like off-kilter car lights in fog, cock-eyed, one angled upward and the other rolled to the side and casting skewed shadows.
My ears rang, and so did my body, an intensely disturbing sensation: bones, brain, heart all thrumming like a struck bell. Faintly, from somewhere far away, the mechanical shriek of alarms rang steady and impersonal.
I could hardly tell if the noise was coming from inside me or outside me. There was a strong sense of being alone, in wintry deadness. Nothing made sense in any direction.
In a cascade of grit, my hand on some not-quite-vertical surface, I stood, wincing at the pain in my head. The tilt of the space where I was had a deep, innate wrongness. On one side, smoke and dust hung in a still, blanketed layer. On the other, a mass of shredded materials slanted down in a tangle where the roof, or the ceiling, should have been.
My jaw hurt; my face and knees were cut; my mouth was like sandpaper. Blinking around at the chaos I saw a tennis shoe; drifts of crumbly matter, stained dark; a twisted aluminium walking stick. I was swaying there, choked and dizzy, not knowing where to turn or what to do, when all of a sudden I thought I heard a phone going off.
For a moment I wasn’t sure; I listened, hard; and then it spieled off again: faint and draggy, a little weird. Clumsily I grappled around in the wreckage – upending dusty kiddie purses and day packs, snatching my hands back at hot things and shards of broken glass, more and more troubled by the way the rubble gave under my feet in spots, and by the soft, inert lumps at the edge of my vision.
Even after I became convinced I’d never heard a phone, that the ringing in my ears had played a trick on me, still I kept looking, locked into the mechanical gestures of searching with an unthinking, robot intensity.
Among pens, handbags, wallets, broken eyeglasses, hotel key cards, compacts and perfume spray and prescription medications (Roitman, Andrea, alprazolam .25 mg) I unearthed a keychain flashlight and a non-working phone (half charged, no bars), which I threw in a collapsible nylon shopping bag I’d found in some lady’s purse.
I was gasping, half-choked with plaster dust, and my head hurt so badly I could hardly see. I wanted to sit down, except there was no place to sit.
Then I saw a bottle of water. My eyes reverted, fast, and strayed over the havoc until I saw it again, about 15 feet away, half buried in a pile of trash: just a hint of a label, familiar shade of cold-case blue.
With a benumbed heaviness like moving through snow, I began to slog and weave through the debris, rubbish breaking under my feet in sharp, glacial-sounding cracks. But I had not made it very far when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement on the ground, conspicuous in the stillness, a stirring of white-on-white.
I stopped. Then I waded a few steps closer. It was a man, flat on his back and whitened head to toe with dust. He was so well camouflaged in the ash-powdered wreckage that it was a moment before his form came clear: chalk on chalk, struggling to sit up like a statue knocked off his pedestal. As I drew closer, I saw that he was old and very frail, with a misshapen hunchback quality; his hair – what he had – was blown straight up from his head; the side of his face was stippled with an ugly spray of burns, and his head, above one ear, was a sticky black horror.
I had made it over to where he was when – unexpectedly fast – he shot out his dust-whitened arm and grabbed my hand. In panic I started back, but he only clutched at me tighter, coughing and coughing with a sick wetness.
Where –? he seemed to be saying. Where –? He was trying to look up at me, but his head dangled heavily on his neck and his chin lolled on his chest so that he was forced to peer from under his brow at me like a vulture. But his eyes, in the ruined face, were intelligent and despairing.
– Oh, God, I said, bending to help him, wait, wait – and then I stopped, not knowing what to do. His lower half lay twisted on the ground like a pile of dirty clothes.
He braced himself with his arms, gamely it seemed, lips moving and still struggling to raise himself. He reeked of burnt hair, burnt wool. But the lower half of his body seemed disconnected from the upper half, and he coughed and fell back in a heap.
I looked around, trying to get my bearings, deranged from the crack on the head, with no sense of time or even if it was day or night. The grandeur and desolation of the space baffled me – the high, rare, loft of it, layered with gradations of smoke, and billowing with a tangled, tent-like effect where the ceiling (or the sky) ought to be. But though I had no idea where I was, or why, still there was a half-remembered quality about the wreckage, a cinematic charge in the glare of the emergency lamps. On the internet I’d seen footage of a hotel blown up in the desert, where the honeycombed rooms at the moment of collapse were frozen in just such a blast of light.
Then I remembered the water. I stepped backwards, looking all around, until with a leap of my heart I spotted the dusty flash of blue.
– Look, I said, edging away. I’m just – The old man was watching me with a gaze at once hopeful and hopeless, like a starved dog too weak to walk.
– No – wait. I’m coming back.
Like a drunk, I staggered through the rubbish – weaving and plowing, stepping high-kneed over objects, muddling through bricks and concrete and shoes and handbags and a whole lot of charred bits I didn’t want to see too closely.
The bottle was three quarters full and hot to the touch. But at the first swallow my throat took charge and I’d gulped more than half of it – plastic-tasting, dishwater warm – before I realised what I was doing and forced myself to cap it and put it in the bag to take back to him.
Kneeling beside him. Rocks digging into my knees. He was shivering, breaths rasping and uneven; his gaze didn’t meet mine but strayed above it, fixed fretfully on something I didn’t see.
I was fumbling for the water when he reached his hand to my face. Carefully, with his bony old flat-pad fingers, he brushed the hair from my eyes and plucked a thorn of glass from my eyebrow and then patted me on the head.
“There, there.” His voice was very faint, very scratchy, very cordial, with a ghastly pulmonary whistle. We looked at each other, for a long strange moment that I’ve never forgotten, actually, like two animals meeting at twilight, during which some clear, personable spark seemed to fly up through his eyes and I saw the creature he really was – and he, I believe, saw me. For an instant we were wired together and humming, like two engines on the same circuit.
Then he lolled back again, so limply I thought he was dead. – “Here,” I said, awkwardly, slipping my hand under his shoulder. “That’s good.” I held up his head as best I could, and helped him drink from the bottle. He could only take a little and most of it ran down his chin. Again falling back. Effort too much.
“Pippa,” he said thickly.
I looked down at his burnt, reddened face, stirred by something familiar in his eyes, which were rusty and clear. I had seen him before. And I had seen the girl too, the briefest snapshot, an autumn-leaf lucidity: rusty eyebrows, honey-brown eyes. Her face was reflected in his. Where was she? He was trying to say something. Cracked lips working. He wanted to know where Pippa was.
Wheezing and gasping for breath. “Here,” I said, agitated, “try to lie still.”
“She should take the train, it’s so much faster. Unless they bring her in a car.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, leaning closer. I wasn’t worried. Someone would be in to get us shortly, I was sure of it. “I’ll wait till they come.”
“You’re so kind.” His hand (cold, dry as powder) tightening on mine.
“I haven’t seen you since you were a little boy again. You were all grown up the last time we spoke.”
“But I’m Theo,” I said, after a slightly confused pause.
“Of course you are.” His gaze, like his handclasp, was steady and kind. “And you’ve made the very best choice, I’m sure of it. The Mozart is so much nicer than the Gluck, don’t you think?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“It’ll be easier the two of you. They’re so hard on you children in the auditions –” Coughing. Lips slick with blood, thick and red. “No second chances.”
“Listen –” It felt wrong, letting him think I was someone else.
“Oh, but you play it so beautifully, my dear, the pair of you. The G major. It keeps running through my mind. Lightly, lightly, touch and go –”
Humming a few shapeless notes. A song. It was a song.
“… and I must have told you, how I went for piano lessons, at the old Armenian lady’s? There was a green lizard that lived in the palm tree, green like a candy drop, I loved to watch for him… flashing on the windowsill… fairy lights in the garden… du pays saint … 20 minutes to walk it but it seemed like miles…”
He faded for a minute; I could feel his intelligence drifting away from me, spinning out of sight like a leaf on a brook. Then it washed back and there he was again.
“And you! How old are you now?”
“At the Lycée Français?”
“No, my school’s on the West Side.”
“And just as well, I should think. All these French classes! Too many vocabulary words for a child. Nom et prénom, species and phylum. It’s only a form of insect collecting.”
Suddenly something was very wrong. He was awake, shaking me. Hands flapping. He wanted something. He tried to press himself up on a whistling in-breath.
“What is it?” I said, shaking myself alert. He was gasping, agitated, tugging at my arm. Fearfully I sat up and looked around, expecting to see some fresh danger rolling in: loose wires, a fire, the ceiling about to collapse.
Grabbing my hand. Squeezing it tight. “Not there,” he managed to say.
“Don’t leave it. No.” He was looking past me, trying to point at something. “Take it away from there.”
Please, lie down –
“No! They mustn’t see it.” He was frantic, gripping my arm now, trying to pull himself up. “They’ve stolen the rugs, they’ll take it to the customs shed –”
He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home.
“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels. “That’s what you want?”
“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing so hard he could barely speak.
I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of broken frame clung to one corner.
Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust. The Anatomy Lesson was in the same book actually but it scared the pants off me.
Right, I answered drowsily. I turned, painting in hand, to show it to her, and then realised she wasn’t there.
I rubbed my arm across my forehead and tried to blink the grit from my eyes and, with a massive effort, like lifting a weight much too heavy for me, tried to shift my mind where I knew it needed to be. Where was my mother? For a moment there had been three of us and one of these – I was pretty sure – had been her. But now there were only two.
Behind me, the old man had begun to cough and shudder again with an uncontrollable urgency, trying to speak. Reaching back, I tried to hand the picture over to him. “Here,” I said.
But the painting wasn’t what he wanted. Fretfully he pushed it back at me, babbling something. The right side of his head was such a sticky drench of blood I could hardly see his ear.
“What?” I said, mind still on my mother – where was she? “Sorry?”
“Take it. Take it with you!” Pressing it on me. “Go!” He was trying to sit up. His eyes were bright and wild; his agitation frightened me. “They took all the light bulbs, they’ve smashed up half the houses in the street –”
A drip of blood ran down his chin.
“Please,” I said, hands flustering, afraid to touch him. “Please lie down –”
He shook his head, and tried to say something, but the effort broke him down hacking with a wet, miserable sound. When he wiped his mouth, I saw a bright stripe of blood on the back of his hand.
“Fire,” he said, in a gargling voice.
He broke off coughing again. Red-tinged froth bubbling at his nostrils. In the midst of all that unreality, cairns and broken monoliths, I had a dreamlike sense of having failed him, as if I’d botched some vital fairy-tale task through clumsiness and ignorance. Though there wasn’t any visible fire anywhere in that tumble of stone, I crawled over and put the painting in the nylon shopping bag, just to get it out of his sight, it was upsetting him so.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll –”
He had calmed down. He put a hand on my wrist, eyes steady and bright, and a chill wind of unreason blew over me. I had done what I was supposed to do. Everything was going to be all right.
“Wrap it in newspapers and pack it at the very bottom of the trunk, my dear. With the other curiosities.”
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Illustration by Wesley Merritt
Relieved that he’d calmed down, exhausted with my headache, all memory of my mother faded to a mothlike flicker, I settled down beside him and closed my eyes, feeling oddly comfortable and safe. Absent, dreamy. He was rambling a bit, under his breath: foreign names, sums and numbers, a few French words but mostly English. A man was coming to look at the furniture. Abdou was in trouble for throwing stones. And yet it all made sense somehow and I saw the palmy garden and the piano and the green lizard on the tree trunk as if they were pages in a photograph album.
“And where did you say you were living now?” His hand on my head, very gently, the way you’d rest your hand on the head of a dog you liked.
“East 57th Street.”
“Oh, yes! Near Le Veau d’Or?”
“Well, a few blocks.” Le Veau d’Or was a restaurant where my mother had liked to go, back when we had money. I had eaten my first escargot there, and tasted my first sip of Marc de Bourgogne from her glass.
“Towards Park, you say?”
“No, closer to the river.”
“Close enough, my dear. Meringues and caviare. How I loved this city the first time I saw it! Still, it’s not the same, is it? I miss it all terribly, don’t you? The balcony, and the…”
“Garden.” I turned to look at him. Perfumes and melodies. In my swamp of confusion, it had come to seem that he was a close friend or family member I’d forgotten about, some long-lost relative of my mother’s…
“Oh, your mother! The darling! I’ll never forget the first time she came to play. She was the prettiest little girl I ever saw.”
How had he known I was thinking about her? I started to ask him but he was asleep. His eyes were closed but his breath was fast and hoarse like he was running from something.
I was fading out myself – ears ringing, inane buzz and a metallic taste in my mouth like at the dentist’s – and I might have drifted back into unconsciousness and stayed there had he not at some point shaken me, hard, so I awoke with a buck of panic. He was mumbling and tugging at his index finger. He’d taken his ring off, a heavy gold ring with a carved stone; he was trying to give it to me.
“Here, I don’t want that,” I said, shying away. “What are you doing that for?”
But he pressed it into my palm. His breath was bubbled and ugly.
“Hobart and Blackwell,” he said, in a voice like he was drowning from the inside out. “Ring the green bell.”
“Green bell,” I repeated, uncertainly.
He lolled his head back and forth, punch-drunk, lips quivering. His eyes were unfocused. When they slid over me without seeing me they gave me a shiver.
“Tell Hobie to get out of the store,” he said thickly.
In disbelief, I watched the blood trickling bright from the corner of his mouth. He’d loosened his tie by yanking at it; “here,” I said, reaching over to help, but he batted my hands away.
“He’s got to close the register and get out!” he rasped. “His father’s sending some guys to beat him up –”
His eyes rolled up; his eyelids fluttered. Then he sank down into himself, flat and collapsed – looking like all the air was out of him, 30 seconds, 40, like a heap of old clothes but then – so harshly I flinched – his chest swelled on a bellows-like rasp, and he coughed a percussive gout of blood that spewed all over me. As best he could, he hitched himself up on his elbows – and for 30 seconds or so he panted like a dog, chest pumping frantically, up and down, up and down, his eyes fixed on something I couldn’t see and all the time gripping my hand like maybe if he held on tight enough he’d be okay.
“Are you all right?” I said – frantic, close to tears. “Can you hear me?”
As he grappled and thrashed – a fish out of water – I held his head up, or tried to, not knowing how, afraid of hurting him, as all the time he clutched my hand like he was dangling off a building and about to fall.
Each breath was an isolated, gargling heave, a heavy stone lifted with terrible effort and dropped again and again to the ground. At one point he looked at me directly, blood welling in his mouth, and seemed to say something, but the words were only a burble down his chin.
Then – to my intense relief – he grew calmer, quieter, his grasp on my hand loosening, melting, a sense of sinking and spinning almost like he was floating on his back away from me, on water.
– Better? I asked, and then –
Carefully, I dripped a bit of water on his mouth – his lips worked, I saw them moving; and then, on my knees, like a servant boy in a story, I wiped some of the blood off his face with the paisley square from his pocket.
As he drifted – cruelly, by degrees and latitudes – into stillness, I rocked back on my heels and looked hard into his wrecked face.
Hello? I said.
One papery eyelid, half shut, twitched, a blue-veined tic.
“If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.”
But his hand in mine was limp. I sat there and looked at him, not knowing what to do. It was time to go, well past time – my mother had made that perfectly clear – and yet I could see no path out of the space where I was and in fact in some ways it was hard to imagine being anywhere else in the world – that there was another world, outside that one. It was like I’d never had another life at all.
“Can you hear me?” I asked him, one last time, bending close and putting my ear to his bloodied mouth. But there was nothing.
Not wanting to disturb him, in case he was only resting, I was as quiet as I could be, standing up. I hurt all over. For some moments I stood looking down at him, wiping my hands on my school jacket – his blood was all over me, my hands were slick with it – and then I looked at the moonscape of rubble trying to orient myself and figure the best way to go.
When – with difficulty – I made my way into the centre of the space, or what seemed like the centre of the space, I saw that one door was obscured by rags of hanging debris, and I turned and began to work in the other direction. There, the lintel had fallen, dumping a pile of brick almost as tall as I was and leaving a smoky space at the top big enough to drive a car through. Laboriously I began to climb and scramble for it – over and around the chunks of concrete – but I had not got very far when I realised that I was going to have to go the other way. Faint traces of fire licked down the far walls of what had been the exhibition shop, spitting and sparkling in the dim, some of it well below the level where the floor should have been.
I didn’t like the looks of the other door (foam tiles stained red; the toe of a man’s shoe protruding from a pile of gravel) but at least most of the material blocking the door wasn’t very solid. Blundering back through, ducking some wires that sparked from the ceiling, I hoisted the bag over my shoulder and took a deep breath and plunged into the wreckage headlong.
Immediately I was choked by dust and a sharp chemical smell. Coughing, praying there were no more live wires hanging loose, I patted and groped in the dark as all sorts of loose debris began to patter and shower down in my eyes: gravel, crumbs of plaster, shreds and chunks of god-knows-what.
Some of the building material was light, and some of it was not. The further I worked in, the darker it got, and the hotter. Every so often my way dwindled or closed up unexpectedly and in my ears a roaring crowd noise, I wasn’t sure where it came from. I had to squeeze around things; sometimes I walked, sometimes I crawled, bodies in the wreckage more sensed than seen, a disturbing soft pressure that gave under my weight but worse than this, the smell: burnt cloth, burnt hair and flesh and the tang of fresh blood, copper and tin and salt.
My hands were cut and so were my knees. I ducked under things and went around things, feeling my way as I went, edging with my hip along the side of some sort of long lathe, or beam, until I found myself blocked in by a solid mass that felt like a wall. With difficulty – the spot was narrow – I worked around so I could reach into the bag for a light.
I wanted the keychain light – at the bottom, under the picture – but my fingers closed on the phone. I switched it on – and almost immediately dropped it, because in the glow I’d caught sight of a man’s hand protruding between two chunks of concrete. Even in my terror, I remember feeling grateful that it was only a hand, although the fingers had a meaty, dark, swollen look I’ve never been able to forget; every now and then I still start back in fear when some beggar on the street thrusts out to me such a hand, bloated and grimed with black around the nails.
There was still the flashlight – but I wanted the phone. It cast a weak glimmer up into the cavity where I was, but just as I recovered myself enough to stoop for it, the screen went dark. An acid-green afterburn floated before me in the blackness. I got down on my knees and crawled around in the dark, grabbling with both hands in rocks and glass, determined to find it.
I thought I knew where it was, or about where it was, and I kept looking for it probably longer than I should have; and it was when I’d given up hope and tried to get up again that I realised I’d crawled into a low spot where it was impossible to stand, with some solid surface about three inches above my head. Turning around didn’t work; going backwards didn’t work; so I decided to crawl forward, hoping that things would open up, and soon found myself inching along painfully with a smashed, desperate feeling and my head turned sharply to one side.
When I was about four, I’d gotten partially stuck inside a Murphy bed in our old apartment on Seventh Avenue, which sounds like a humorous predicament but wasn’t really; I think I would have suffocated if Alameda, our housekeeper back then, hadn’t heard my muffled cries and pulled me out. Trying to manoeuvre in that airless space was somewhat the same, only worse: with glass, hot metal, the stink of burnt clothes, and an occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn’t want to think about. Debris was pattering down on me heavily from above; my throat was filling with dust and I was coughing hard and starting to panic when I realised I could see, just barely, the rough texture of the broken bricks that surrounded me. Light – the faintest gleam imaginable – crept in subtly from the left, about six inches from floor level.
I ducked lower, and found myself looking over into the dim terrazzo floor of the gallery beyond. A disorderly pile of what looked like rescue equipment (ropes, axes, crowbars, an oxygen tank that said FDNY) lay harum-scarum on the floor.
“Hello?” I called – not waiting for an answer, dropping to wriggle through the hole as fast as I could.
The space was narrow; if I’d been a few years older or a few pounds heavier I might not have got through. Partway, my bag caught on something, and for a moment I thought I might have to slip free of it, painting or no painting, like a lizard shedding its tail, but when I gave it one last pull it finally broke free with a shower of crumbled plaster. Above me was a beam of some sort, which looked like it was holding up a lot of heavy building material, and as I twisted and squirmed beneath it, I was light-headed with fear that it would slip and cut me in two until I saw that somebody had stabilised it with a jack.
Once clear, I climbed to my feet, watery and stunned with relief. “Hello?” I called again, wondering why there was so much equipment around and not a fireman in sight. The gallery was dim but mostly undamaged, with gauzy layers of smoke that thickened the higher they rose, but you could tell that a tremendous force of some sort had blown through the room just from the lights and the security cameras, which were knocked askew and facing the ceiling. I was so happy to be out in open space again that it was a moment or so before I realised the strangeness of being the only person standing up in a room full of people. Everybody else was lying down except me.
There were at least a dozen people on the floor – not all of them intact. They had the appearance of having been dropped from a great height. Three or four of the bodies were partially covered with firemen’s coats, feet sticking out. Others sprawled glaringly in the open, amidst explosive stains. The splashes and bursts carried a violence, like big blood sneezes, an hysterical sense of movement in the stillness. I remember particularly a middle-aged lady in a bloodspattered blouse that had a pattern of Fabergé eggs on it, like a blouse she might have bought in the museum gift shop, actually. Her eyes – lined with black make-up – stared blankly at the ceiling; and her tan was obviously sprayed on since her skin had a healthy apricot glow even though the top of her head was missing.
Dim oils, dulled gilt. Taking tiny steps, I walked out into the middle of the room, swaying, slightly off balance. I could hear my own breath rasping in and out and there was a strange shallowness in the sound, a nightmare lightness. I didn’t want to look and yet I had to. A small Asian man, pathetic in his tan windbreaker, curled in a bellying pool of blood. A guard (his uniform the most recognisable thing about him, his face was burnt so badly) with an arm twisted behind his back and a vicious spray where his leg should have been.
But the main thing, the important thing: none of the lying-down people was her. I made myself look at them all, each separately, one by one – even when I couldn’t force myself to look at their faces, I knew my mother’s feet, her clothes, her two-tone black and white shoes – and long after I was sure of it I made myself stand in their midst, folded deep inside myself like a sick pigeon with its eyes closed.
In the gallery beyond: more dead. Three dead. Fat Argyll-vest man; cankered old lady; a milky duckling of a little girl, red abrasion at her temple but otherwise hardly a mark on her. But then, there were no more.
I walked through several galleries littered with equipment but despite the bloodstains on the floor, there were no dead at all. And when I walked into the far-seeming gallery where she’d been, where she’d gone, the gallery with The Anatomy Lesson – eyes closed tight, wishing hard – there were only the same stretchers and equipment and there, as I walked through, in the oddly screaming silence, the only two observers were the same two puzzled Dutchmen who had stared at my mother and me from the wall: what are you doing here?
Then something snapped. I don’t even remember how it happened; I was just in a different place and running, running through rooms that were empty except for a haze of smoke that made the grandeur seem insubstantial and unreal. Earlier, the galleries had seemed fairly straightforward, a meandering but logical sequence where all tributaries flowed into the gift shop. But coming back through them fast, and in the opposite direction, I realised that the path wasn’t straight at all; and over and over I turned into blank walls and veered into dead-end rooms. Doors and entrances weren’t where I expected them to be; free-standing plinths loomed out of nowhere. Swinging around a corner a little too sharply I almost ran headlong into a gang of Frans Hals guardsmen: big, rough, ruddy-cheeked guys, bleary from too much beer, like New York City cops at a costume party. Coldly they stared me down, with hard, humorous eyes, as I recovered, backed off, and began to run again.
Even on a good day, I sometimes got turned around in the museum (wandering aimlessly in galleries of Oceanic Art, totems and dugout canoes) and sometimes I had to go up and ask a guard to point the way out. The painting galleries were especially confusing since they were rearranged so often; and as I ran around in the empty halls, in the ghostly half-light, I was growing more and more frightened. I thought I knew my way to the main staircase, but soon after I was out of the Special Exhibitions galleries things started looking unfamiliar and after a minute or two running light-headed through turns I was no longer quite sure of, I realised I was thoroughly lost. Somehow I’d gone right through the Italian masterworks (crucified Christs and astonished saints, serpents and embattled angels) ending up in England, 18th century, a part of the museum I had seldom been in before and did not know at all. Long elegant lines of sight stretched out before me, mazelike halls which had the feel of a haunted mansion: periwigged lords, cool Gainsborough beauties, gazing superciliously down at my distress. The baronial perspectives were infuriating, since they didn’t seem to lead to the staircase or any of the main corridors but only to other stately baronial galleries exactly like them; and I was close to tears when suddenly I saw an inconspicuous door in the side of the gallery wall.
You had to look twice to see it, this door; it was painted the same colour as the gallery walls, the kind of door which, in normal circumstances, looked like it would be kept locked. It had only caught my attention because it wasn’t completely closed – the left side wasn’t flush with the wall, whether because it hadn’t caught properly or because the lock wasn’t working with the electricity out, I didn’t know. Still, it was not easy to get open – it was heavy, steel, and I had to pull with all my strength. Suddenly – with a pneumatic gasp – it gave so capriciously I stumbled.
Squeezing through, I found myself in a dark office hallway under a much lower ceiling. The emergency lights were much weaker than in the main gallery, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust.
The hallway seemed to stretch for miles. Fearfully I crept along, peering into the offices where the doors happened to stand ajar. Cameron Geisler, Registrar. Miyako Fujita, Assistant Registrar. Drawers were open and chairs were pushed away from desks. In the doorway of one office a woman’s high-heeled shoe lay on its side.
The air of abandonment was unspeakably eerie. It seemed that far in the distance I could hear police sirens, maybe even walkie-talkies and dogs, but my ears were ringing so hard from the explosion that I thought I might well be hearing things. It was starting to unnerve me more and more that I had seen no firemen, no cops, no security guards — in fact not a single living soul.
“Hello?” I said, tentatively, glancing into some of the rooms as I passed. Some of the offices were modern and spare; others were crowded and dirty-looking, with untidy stacks of paper and books.
To my left, light flickered from a ceiling fixture. It hummed and caught, in a staticky fit, and in the trembling glow, I saw a drinking fountain down the hall.
I ran for it – so fast my feet almost slid out from underneath me – and gulped with my mouth pressed against the spigot, so much cold water, so fast, that a spike of pain slid into my temple. Hiccuping, I rinsed the blood from my hands and splashed water in my sore eyes. Tiny splinters of glass – almost invisible – tinkled to the steel tray of the fountain like needles of ice.
I leaned against the wall. The overhead fluorescents – vibrating, spitting on and off – made me feel queasy. With effort, I pulled myself up again; on I walked, wobbling a bit in the unstable flicker. Things were looking decidedly more industrial in this direction: wooden pallets, a flatbed pushcart, a sense of crated objects being moved and stored. I passed another junction, where a slick shadowy passageway receded into darkness, and I was just about to walk past it and keep going when I saw a red glow at the end that said EXIT.
I tripped; I fell over my feet; I got up again, still hiccuping, and ran down the endless hall. Down at the end of the corridor was a door with a metal bar, like the security doors at my school.
It pushed open with a bark. Down a dark stairwell I ran, 12 steps, a turn at the landing, then 12 steps to the bottom, my fingertips skimming on the metal rail, shoes clattering and echoing so crazily that it sounded like half a dozen people were running with me. At the foot of the steps was a grey institutional corridor with another barred door. I threw myself against it, pushed it open with both hands – and was slapped hard in the face by rain and the deafening wail of sirens.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Illustration by Wesley Merritt
I think I might have screamed out loud, I was so happy to be outside, though nobody could have heard me in all that noise: I might as well have been trying to scream over jet engines on the tarmac at LaGuardia during a thunderstorm. It sounded like every fire truck, every cop car, every ambulance and emergency vehicle in five boroughs plus Jersey was howling and caterwauling out on Fifth Avenue, a deliriously happy noise: like New Year’s and Christmas and Fourth of July fireworks rolled into one.
The exit had spat me out in Central Park, through a deserted side door between the loading docks and the parking garage. Footpaths stood empty in the grey-green distance; treetops plunged white, tossing and foaming in the wind. Beyond, on the rainswept street, Fifth Avenue was blocked off. Through the downpour, from where I stood, I could just see the great bright bombardment of activity: cranes and heavy equipment, cops pushing the crowds back, red lights, yellow and blue lights, flares that beat and whirled and flashed in quicksilver confusion.
In all the welter, nobody noticed me. For a moment or two, I ran uselessly back and forth in the street, rain peppering in my face. Everywhere I looked, images of my own panic dashed past. People coursed and surged around me blindly: cops, firemen, guys in hard hats, an elderly man cradling a broken elbow and a woman with a bloody nose being shooed toward 79th Street by a distracted policeman.
Pushing through the sea of parked vehicles and official black raincoats, I spotted a Hatzolah ambulance: Hebrew letters on the back, a little lighted hospital room visible through the open doors. Attendants were bending over a woman, trying to press her down as she struggled to sit up. A wrinkled hand with red fingernails clawed at the air.
I beat on the door with my fist. “You need to go back inside,” I yelled. “People are still in there –”
“There’s another bomb,” yelled the attendant without looking at me. “We had to evacuate.”
Before I had time to register this, a gigantic cop swooped down on me like a thunderclap: a thick-headed, bulldoggish guy, with pumped-up arms like a weightlifter’s. He grabbed me roughly by the upper arm and began to hustle and shove me to the other side of the street.
“What the f— are you doing over here?” he bellowed, drowning out my protests, as I tried to wrench free.
“Sir –” A bloody-faced woman coming up, trying to get his attention –“Sir, I think my hand is broken –”
“Get back from the building!” he screamed at her, throwing her arm off and then, at me – “Go!”
“But –” With both hands, he shoved me so hard I staggered and nearly fell.
“GET BACK FROM THE BUILDING!” he screamed, throwing up his arms with a flap of his rain slicker. “NOW!” He wasn’t even looking at me; his small, bearish eyes were riveted on something going on over my head, up the street, and the expression on his face terrified me.
In haste, I dodged through the crowd of emergency workers to the opposite sidewalk, just above 79th Street – keeping an eye out for my mother, though I didn’t see her. Ambulances and medical vehicles galore: Beth Israel Emergency, Lenox Hill, NY Presbyterian, Cabrini EMS Paramedic. A bloody man in a business suit lay flat on his back behind an ornamental yew hedge, in the tiny, fenced yard of a Fifth Avenue mansion. A yellow security tape was strung up, snapping and popping in the wind – but the rain-drenched cops and firemen and guys in hard hats were lifting it up and ducking back and forth under it as if it weren’t even there.
All eyes were turned uptown, and only later would I learn why; on 84th Street (too far away for me to see) the Hazmat cops were in the process of “disrupting” an undetonated bomb by shooting it with a water cannon. Intent on talking to someone, trying to find out what had happened, I tried to push my way towards a fire truck but cops were charging through the crowds, waving their arms, clapping their hands, beating people back.
I caught hold of a fireman’s coat – a young, gum-chewing, friendly looking guy. “Somebody’s still in there!” I screamed.
“Yeah, yeah, we know,” shouted the fireman without looking at me. “They ordered us out. They’re telling us five minutes, they’re letting us back in.”
A swift push in the back. “Move, move!” I heard somebody scream.
A rough voice, heavily accented: “Get your hands off me!”
“NOW! Everybody get moving!”
Sirens; white smoke billowing from the subway vents. A homeless man wrapped in a dirty blanket wandered back and forth, looking eager and confused. I looked around hopefully for my mother in the crowd, fully expecting to see her; for a short time I tried to swim upstream against the cop-driven current (standing on my toes, craning to see) until I realised it was hopeless to push back up and try to look for her in that torrential rain, that mob. I’ll just see her at home, I thought.
Home was where we were supposed to meet; home was the emergency arrangement; she must have realised how useless it would be, trying to find me in all that crush. But still I felt a petty, irrational pang of disappointment – and, as I walked home (skull-cracking headache, practically seeing double) I kept looking for her, scanning the anonymous, preoccupied faces around me. She’d gotten out; that was the important thing. She’d been rooms away from the worst part of the explosion. None of the bodies was her. But no matter what we had agreed upon beforehand, no matter how much sense it made, somehow I still couldn’t quite believe she had walked away from the museum without me.
Excerpts from The Goldfinch PDF