Your Dream of Dark Angels
If Providence exists, then creation is defective.
--Flaubert, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”
The word flutters in darkness. Worlds collide.
“Bruce? Bruce Wayne!”
Bruce stirs awake. He lifts his head from his desk and his eyes blink open and stare at this teacher, Mr. Daldren, who stands before him quite perturbed. Dreams fade – he’s in school; it’s day.
“Yeah?” Bruce asks, addressing the teacher, but also the rest of the class, as well as the entire world around him, angry to have been removed from sleep. He can already feel a thin frustration, welling through his veins; they are all his enemies.
“Bruce, if you want to sleep, you can do it in the principal’s office,” says Mr. Daldren, raising an eyebrow and tapping at Bruce’s desk with his pen. “I’m sure that would be more conducive to your habits.”
“That’s okay, sir. I’m awake. I’m – happy to be here, I’m sorry.”
Mr. Daldren turns around and heads back to the blackboard. “We were talking about Hamlet, Bruce.”
“Of course,” Bruce says, and the class laughs gently at him. They don’t know what to think of Bruce Wayne – they never do.
But then he turns to his right and sees best friends Julie Madison and Margo Rathway sitting at their own desks, staring at him curiously amused. A sly smile forms on Julie’s face; a concerned look dawns on Margo’s.
Bruce sighs, struggling to unfold himself. He knows Mr. Daldren hasn’t finished yet. The English teacher turns back to him and frowns. “Now…” Mr. Daldren begins, “Bruce, what is Hamlet’s fatal flaw?”
Young Bruce Wayne clenches his teeth. “Inaction,” he replies.
“Inaction,” Mr. Daldren repeats. “But why does he fail to act?”
Bruce searches his brain for an answer that a man like Mr. Daldren would approve of. “Because he thinks too much.”
“That’s a common misinterpretation,” scolds Mr. Daldren, shaking his head. “No, Mr. Wayne, as Nietzsche described, Hamlet fails to act because he knows… But what does he know?”
Bruce does not answer. He hates Hamlet.
Mr. Daldren gives up on young Wayne. “Anyone?” he asks. “What does Hamlet know?”
Someone speaks: “He knows that it is ridiculous for him to try to set the world to rights.”
“Exactly,” commends Mr. Daldren. “Hamlet knows that his actions mean nothing, that they will solve nothing. What can one man’s action be worth? Hamlet sees the absurdity of any attempt at action. He realizes: it’s all meaningless. There’s nothing he can do to affect anything, and even if he did, what would it matter?”
Mr. Daldren smiles, convinced of his argument. “Does anyone have any questions?”
At fifteen years old, Bruce is a peculiar being, somewhat like all teenagers, but also like none other. Tall, dark, and imminently moody, he moves through the world like a broken wing. At lunch he finds himself sitting with his “friends” and chewing down his sandwich, the pale light from the overhead fluorescents falling upon him like crystalline vomit.
He listens to the conversations around him, laughs when he’s supposed to, and talks very little, mostly answering with questions that inspire the others to speak in his stead. Some think him modest; others think him aloof; and others consider Bruce a total rich asshole. The truth is, while surrounded by the children of the rich and powerful at his school, there are few with the gravitas of himself: both because of his immense wealth, and his dark story.
He is the heir to an outrageous fortune – beyond imagination – but he is also an orphan, his parents having been murdered before his eyes in a street mugging when he was only eight years old. The other kids whisper about him when he isn’t around, curious and sympathetic in some ways, but ultimately pitiless. For he isn’t all there – he is different from the other kids, in almost every attribute; attentive in his studies but also madly physically fit; social, but present only at mad distances. On the surface he appears normal to teachers and other authority figures, but the kids know something is wrong with him, something hideous. Combined with their envy, this sets him apart – very apart.
Most of the time he is pretending. He comes off as a snob, disinterested in the things everyone else cares about, alien, unwilling to play along. People like him for his status; but they don’t know him. They never could.
His girlfriend, Julie Madison, leans into him and hooks her fingers into his. She is the prettiest girl in school, the scion of an ancient banking clan, and popular. She spends most of lunch talking instead of eating, while he systematically shoves down his sustenance, every day. But then there are moments like this, where she drags him into reality with her effortless laugh and aristocratic mirth. He doesn’t mind – he does enjoy life, on occasion, and he is fond of her, though he is careful never to reveal his true thoughts.
“Yes?” he asks, peering into her blue eyes, smiling the perfect way he has instructed himself in, with some honest affection.
“Bruce, you ARE taking me to the Natural History Museum to see the mummy, aren’t you?” She grins fully, revealing perfect teeth and the hint of her animated tongue.
“Well – of course,” Bruce says, looking at the rest of their friends, who watch attentively. “Um… what mummy?”
The others laugh.
“Bruce!” Julie sighs. “The new Egyptian exhibit at the Gotham Museum of Natural History, the one featuring the mummy Margo’s father found last summer!”
Bruce turns to Margo, who sits across the table from them. Quiet, but vastly intelligent and uniquely pretty, Margo Rathway is the daughter of legendary archaeologist Lord Morris Rathway. Possessed of shiny brown hair and dark eyes deeper than mystic caverns, Margo has been in Bruce’s life for years, since he was a child. Their families had been close. “Oh – that mummy,” Bruce says, remembering now. “Of course!”
The kids laugh again, Julie with them. Margo smiles too, but this time sympathetic, knowingly. “Bruce, you really need to come back to Earth sometimes,” Julie scolds. “It’s nice down here. Where DO you go?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce lies. “Not far.”
Julie turns her lips up in a smirk. “Whatever you say,” she laughs. “My boyfriend! No wonder he’s not interested in the mummy,” she announces to the others. “He’s undead himself!”
Dr. Hilarion is Bruce’s favorite teacher. A dwarf, under four foot tall, with a head of white hair and childlike features, Hilarion teaches history and philosophy, with a focus on antiquity, but he also possesses an uncanny understanding of social undercurrents and economics. Dr. Hilarion preaches that the world is inhabited not by inevitable occurrences, but by human characters who mold reality both consciously and unconsciously.
That afternoon, while instructing the students about the horrors of the French revolution, Dr. Hilarion digresses and begins to discuss Marcus Aurelius, an emperor of ancient Rome.
“Even great men,” Hilarion speaks in his high voice as most of the students nod, bored, and Bruce stares rapt, “Can instigate terrible things. Marcus Aurelius was both a philosopher and statesman, capable of supreme self-control and considerable thoughtfulness. His writings are sublime. And – while a so-called tyrant – he ruled the empire with compassion and foresight.
“Nevertheless,” Hilarion continues, “Beset by opposition, this ‘philosopher king’ faltered. While moderate and judicious in his daily life, he was influenced by the mob around him to administrate persecution of the Christians, which – tolerated prior to his authority – were often stoned, flayed, fed to beasts, and torn from their families to be cast into slavery and worse. Now – who can tell me what stoicism is?”
One of the students raises his hand. “Stoicism was an antique philosophy based on pagan ideas.”
“That’s a start, Harold” commends Dr. Hilarion. “But I don’t like your use of the word ‘antique’. While originating in classical times, stoicism, if you remove its pagan embellisments, is actually quite modern. Can anyone tell me why?” Dr. Hilarion raises an eyebrow and peers at Bruce. “Young Mr. Wayne – what do you think?”
Bruce nods. Under Dr. Hilarion’s private tutelage, he has extensively studied classic philosophy, including stoicism and its famous adherents. “Well,” says Bruce. “Stoicism is about reaching a balance between determinism and will.”
“Which means what?”
“It means,” says Bruce, “that they believed that human activity was indomitable, but should be used in accordance with conscience.”
“Action – with conscience. Very good, Wayne.”
Bruce smiled. He enjoys Dr. Hilarion’s respect.
“Now,” Hilarion, “How is it that Marcus Aurelius’s conscientious mind could allow the unvarnished evil of the Christian persecutions, even justifying it in his writings, if philosophy dominated his spirit so?”
The class is silent.
“Ah,” Hilarion chuckles. “The truth hesitates to be spoken.”
“Dr. Hilarion?” One of the students ventures a question in the absence of an answer.
“Yes?” the dwarf turns, facing the student, who shrinks under the class’s attention. “Are you a Christian? Wasn’t it just war between two ideologies?”
“Am I Christian?” Dr. Hilarion muses. “Well, I am too old – and too short – to be much of anything, Sheila.”
The class almost laughs.
“But was it war?” Dr. Hilarion strokes his chin. “I suppose – but we all know who won, now don’t we?”
Another student raises his hand.
“What happened to Marcus Aurelius?”
“What happened to him? Why, he died of course!”
“But his philosophy? Where did it go?”
“Where did it go?” Dr. Hilarion repeats. “Where did it go, indeed….?”
Finally the last bell rings and school is over. Bruce shambles out the doors and waves goodbye to his “friends”. This world is abominable, he thinks.
Alfred, his butler and caretaker, picks him up in a Rolls Royce and drives him home, which is the old family mansion on the outskirts of the city. “How was school?” Alfred asks, peering at Bruce through the rearview mirror.
Bruce shrugs. “Hellish,” he replies.
Alfred chuckles, though he knows Bruce is half-serious. “Today is Friday, you know.”
“I know,” says Bruce.
“Any plans for the weekend?”
“I have to go to the museum with Julie.”
“Ah, to see the Lord Rathway exhibit,” Alfred confirms.
“Yeah,” says Bruce, disinterested.
“How is Margo? I don’t think I’ve seen her since she returned with her father.”
“She is good,” Bruce answers.
They pass through the traffic on their way home. Alfred turns on the stereo. “Handel,” he says, identifying the music, which consists of pious melodies played on an organ. Bruce smiles – it’s always something baroque for Alfred.
In a short forty minutes they arrive at the Wayne estate, parking the car in the garage and piercing the airy house with their presence. Their movements echo among the walls and high ceilings.
Bruce strips off his uniform and hands it to Alfred, who will throw it into the wash. Alfred’s attentions are both professional and maternal, the realm of a man-servant, but also with every repetitive gesture formed out of love for young Wayne, whom he has cared for since Bruce was a babe.
“I’m going downstairs,” Bruce tells Alfred as he puts on the dark, more comfortable clothes that Alfred laid out for him as he does every day.
Alfred frowns. “Well, be sure to turn on the heaters I brought down there, or you’ll catch your death in those damp caverns.”
“Okay, mom,” Bruce chides.
“You know how much I care about you,” Alfred begins.
“Alfred—I know, you tell me every day.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange to spend all your time down there? Wouldn’t you rather enjoy the sunlight up here?”
“I don’t deserve sunlight,” Bruce says.
Alfred touches his master’s arm. “Yes. Yes, you do.”
In the caverns beneath the mansion, carved by eons of water and inhabited by bats and darkness, Bruce’s thoughts are pure. He feels heaven has directed him to assume some horrible form, evil being indifferent and the law reeling in drunkenness. He fantasizes about making the guilty insane, and appalling the free.
Can the cause of order alone sustain him? But he mustn’t believe, like a brute, in the reality of things. The world is a work of delirium, Bruce thinks. The angels themselves have sinned.
“I condemn all things,” he says to himself, clenching his fists and digging his nails into his palms. “But I will despise nothing.”
Bruce is only half conscious of his frenzied, crazed unrest. He sits at his computer, which can access all the world’s databases, a feat managed by his ingenuity combined with his wealth, and the whirls of words build further in his mind. All researches are available to him. He desires to know the hierarchies of crime, the names of death, the reasoning of germs.
There are pangs–the want of vengeance, prompted by heaven and hell–but he tells himself such is a poisonous luxury, that it’s a temptation he must deliver himself from, that justice is the greater cause.
But what is just?
He continues to speak to himself, the determined noise of his voice soft in the shadows of the cave: “This lonely life may be bad, and I have nourished myself with bitter things. But—the truth is that nothing is impossible, that nothing can stop me now.
“I will become the clear star of morning,” Bruce tells himself.