All the World Beside


The following is from Garrard Conley’s All the World Beside. Conley is the author of the memoir Boy Erased, as well as the creator and co-producer of the podcast UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America. His work has been published by The New York Times, Oxford American, Time, and Virginia Quarterly Review, among others. Conley is a graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA program. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University.

In the physician’s house there are many jars, glass jars of all sizes, lining the walls of his workroom. An additional lean‑to for his growing collection of rare ingredients, many of which, truth be told, he simply wished to collect on account of his interest in botany. In the jar on his worktable is a fine powder made of cascarilla, often used as a tonic, a plant found only in the tropics, procured from a seaman who had taken a liking to him down at Long Wharf when he and his family had lived in Boston. The seaman had passed by Arthur, who was pretending to admire the waves lapping the piles; then, in a swift motion Arthur had come to associate with these assignations, the man returned, permitting his arm to graze Arthur’s hips. Arthur waited a few moments before following the man down a narrow alley. When they finished, and the seaman surprised Arthur with a tender kiss on the neck, a promise was made: a sum of money for the cascarilla, a trade, for when the seaman next traveled to the West Indies. Always it had been this way with the men Arthur met at the wharves. Whatever pleasure he found there had soon been eclipsed by the trade, and he was able to tell himself the animal moans that escaped his mouth as the men entered him were merely part of the price of his science.

Lizard tails, fish scales, and ambergris he had collected by less complicated means. Though he gave up the wharves and the men and all that came with his previous life when he moved to Cana, he could not give up these rare ingredients. Here they sit beside pots of mint and juniper berries, a reminder that other flavors, other essences, continue to thrive on other shores.

Nathaniel had asked after the jars. It has been a little more than a year since then, a year that feels like an eternity. Sitting now at his desk not long after Catherine and Ezekiel Whitfield paid him a visit, Arthur wonders if none of this would have happened, none of this fine mess, had Nathaniel never asked.

Always a curious man, the reverend had gazed into the jars with his nose nearly touching the glass. His earnestness, his helplessness before the unknown, was so very handsome, so real. He had come for a salve, having injured his hand while repairing the meeting‑house roof. The nail had not gone in too deep, Arthur saw. They barely knew each other at this point; it had been less than a few months since the Reverend Whitfield spoke before the stocks on Summer Street in Boston, where men were punished on a scaffold before the public, a fitting place for a sermon on freedom from sin. Arthur had gone to see him, this man people said had once led five hundred souls to be saved in one meeting.

The rest is now part of Cana’s story: a wealthy physician leaving his comfortable post in Boston to join a small town, hardly a town really, of roughly two hundred souls who had all been converted thanks to Reverend Whitfield’s words. As Nathaniel spoke, Arthur felt the hinges flying off their joints, the boards cracking, his limbs freed of their shackles. He did not have to do what he did at the wharves; he could simply love this man—a divine love, a Christ‑love.

Arthur had added a handful of juniper berries, some beeswax, and a sprig of mint to the mortar. As his hands moved, he felt the reverend’s eyes upon him. “It won’t hurt,” Arthur said, trying to ease the familiar tension creeping through his legs, up his back. He felt if he turned away, he would soon feel that hand brushing his back. He dipped two fingers into the salve and held them up. The reverend held out his palm, and Arthur slid his free hand beneath the man’s, steadying it so it no longer trembled. The reverend let out a small sound at this, something like a laugh or a cry. Carefully, Arthur pressed the salve into the wound. Once or twice, the reverend’s hand jerked back, as though expecting pain, but Arthur knew there would be none; he knew there would be only a cooling relief, so he gripped the reverend’s wrist to hold him fast. “Our Savior endured the whip and the cross,” the reverend said. “Your reverend cannot endure a sting.”

“There is no sting, reverend,” Arthur replied. “It is your mind playing tricks.”

Arthur must have known then. It would take some time, another month of dancing around it, but finally, one night when Arthur had seen the windows of the meetinghouse lit from inside and decided to pay his friend a visit, it had happened. He walked into the door where none should enter but the minister and discovered Nathaniel kneeling beside the pulpit, his wig cast aside, his natural hair pasted to temple and brow. A man afflicted. He walked to the minister’s side and listened to the sound of their breathing in the cavernous hall. When his hand reached the minister’s shoulder, faint words escaped the man’s lips: “I discovered Catherine here, upon a pulpit much like this. She fell into my arms, and I kissed her before all the people of Hingham. I did not know why I had remembered it just now, why I felt such a powerful desire to pray this evening. Now I understand. The Lord was preparing me.”

Arthur had heard the story, a famous one. Catherine crying out for salvation, the minister delivering her not only to God but also right into the arms of marriage. For once, Arthur did not choose his next words carefully. “Will you open your arms to me, reverend?”

And when it happened, he understood the Reverend Whitfield’s words had not been freeing him from sin but rather leading him toward something more mysterious and binding, a love that felt divine. He had seen but a spark of that love when standing before the stocks on Summer Street, yet he had not understood it. He had cloaked it in a language incommensurate to the highest reaches of their bond, which exists beyond all human languages save, perhaps, that of touch. Some part of him had known he wanted this all along, all of those other men were leading him to this man, the one who spoke directly to his heart.

The knowledge that he is responsible for their coupling no longer troubles him. He views his predicament from afar, with a detachment he usually reserves only for his studies. Perhaps he should be fearful; perhaps he should worry after the state of his soul, but all that matters to him now is this love, keeping it alive, ensuring the reverend does not turn him away from the source of his happiness. He knows they view it differently, of course. The reverend believes their time together in the meetinghouse was but a slip, a mistake, perhaps a natural reaction to their close brotherly bond, but one the Devil has corrupted in order to drive them away from God. It is for this reason they have only come together in that way once; each time Arthur tries to draw closer, Nathaniel pushes him away. Arthur cannot understand this thinking; or rather, he cannot understand how this thinking can be so close to the reverend’s heart, when all that drives Arthur, in the wake of their union, is desire, not thought. A desire that, in his case, makes him feel closer to God than ever before.

Could it be anything but a heavenly sign that Ezekiel Whitfield was born almost exactly nine months later? Could it even be possible that the seed spilled between them that evening had remained with Nathaniel as he lay with Catherine later that night with renewed vigor, lust carrying over from one body to the next, uniting them all? The only evidence he needed was the boy’s features, which inexplicably resembled both of theirs and also Catherine’s: a divine miracle. The Lord was known to work in such mysteries. None believed Mary at first; none would have her at the inn, yet see how she was blessed, see how she was vindicated.

He stands. The room tips, swaying. He steadies himself on the edge of the desk, waiting for the dizziness to pass. They had been here. He had pressed his hands upon the child’s belly, soothed him as a father might. After his father, Catherine had said. Something had unlocked inside of him with her incantation. He had stared into those eyes so like Nathaniel’s and seen himself reflected there, right in the center, where he belongs. He wanted to return with them to their house, care for the child in Nathaniel’s absence, but he forced himself to remain calm. The child is not sick with fever, but something does indeed ail him. Even if it is not serious, his father must know. Yes, that is the right thing to do. Arthur must leave at once so he can tell Nathaniel. Less than half a day’s journey to Stockbridge, but he can make the trip much sooner if he takes one of the Griggses’ strong pacers. He banishes from his mind, as soon as it appears, the thought that he is fabricating an excuse to see Nathaniel again.

A few moments of slow breathing, and Arthur is calm. He heads up the stairs to tell Anne and Martha of his plan. No one in the parlor. The kitchen empty as well, the spout of Anne’s teapot still steaming. He places one hand upon the side of the scalding teapot and holds it there a second too long. They had been here. His wife and daughter had been here and left him.

“Who is this stranger?” a voice behind him says. His wife’s.

Arthur paints on a smile to hide his pain, tucking the injured hand into his coat pocket. He turns to Anne, who stands in the kitchen doorway with a genuine smile upon her lips, one hand on the frame. She is still young, thirty‑one to his forty, and playful. Today she wears her market dress, an ugly sack that on her delicate frame looks like a costume, a smudge of dirt streaked across her reddened cheek for added effect. It is her day to stand beside Deborah Inverness, the merchant’s wife, and assist that stern woman in Cana’s unique system of trade, a system designed by all for the good of all, where none shall want for goods or money. She is proud of her task even as Deborah keeps her at a distance, even as the other inhabitants of Cana eye her with suspicion, as though she might be a popish spy.

“I saw you eyeing that teapot, stranger,” she says. “My husband does not permit tea in this house, so if you wish to have some, you should have it now before he returns.”

“How long have you been home?”

“An hour,” Anne says. “Deborah brought in Goody Munn so she’ll have someone else to spread her vile gossip with. I’m afraid I am lacking in that particular grace. But it was so quiet here—I thought you had gone out. What were you doing down there?”

Arthur feels caught out. Had he voiced any of his thoughts aloud? “The tea, Arthur,” Anne says, after a pause. “Would you like some tea?”

His palm has begun to pulse with each heartbeat. “We shouldn’t be keeping tea. It is too expensive, too lavish. They’ll think we haven’t adapted to life in Cana, that we are too good for them. I hope you don’t offer it to the other women.”

“What other women?” Anne takes a seat at the table, propping herself up by the elbows like an eager pupil. “There is no one to offer it to.”

“The town will come round when they have need of our services,” Arthur says. A parody of Catherine’s words, for he doesn’t yet believe them. Though he and Anne have given up their life in Boston for Cana, there is something the flock seems to detect in them, some worldly sheen lingering within their mannerisms and habits of speech that keeps them separate from the rest. Though they store their money in the city and rarely spend it on anything aside from what is required of Arthur’s practice, it seems nothing can wash away the scent of their past.

“And what is my service to these people, Arthur?” Anne says, staring longingly at her nails. He had helped her overcome the urge to bite them, that nervous habit: a simple solution of kitchen pepper and clove applied to each nail. “We’ve been here more than a year, and still no one calls upon me. If I am to sit here every day in this house by myself, I shall have my tea. Besides, Martha has given up too much already. She is too young, Arthur, to give up every comfort.”

“And what of Catherine for you? And Sarah as a companion for Martha? There is some symmetry in the arrangement, after all.” Arthur places his good hand upon his wife’s shoulder. “Are they not someone?”

“Indeed, we must labor diligently, my dear husband, if we are to finish your fine painting, for who shall be companion to Ezekiel?”

Arthur is glad his wife cannot see his expression. “Please be serious, Anne.”

“Is the notion of welcoming another Lyman into this world not a matter of significance? It has been quite some time since we made the attempt.” Anne presses Arthur’s hand with her own. “Besides, they are the minister’s family. They must be kind to everyone. It hardly counts as anything more than Christian charity.”

“I believe Catherine at least sees something of herself in you. We are quite alike, the Lymans and the Whitfields. Oddly, I think we are all outsiders here.”

Arthur sees the back of his wife’s neck tense.

“You are indeed a stranger, husband,” Anne says. “Are you so full of philosophy today?”

Arthur frees his hand and takes a seat opposite her. He must look a dandy with one hand still in his pocket, but Anne has not seemed to notice. “Catherine came to the house this morning with Ezekiel. The boy is sick.”

“Oh dear. Is there anything I can do?”

“It seems I shall have to fetch the father,” Arthur says, as casually as possible. “I do not believe it is anything serious, but one must always be cautious.”

“Well, what is it then, if it is not serious?”

“I hesitate to call it a spiritual affliction. Yet it cannot hurt to ask the reverend to pray over him.”

“Of course,” Anne says, nodding. “But Arthur—isn’t he due back tomorrow? Soon it will be a week, will it not?”

“I believe so,” Arthur lies. “I’ve not kept count of the days. But you know how these men tarry. Stockbridge is a very busy place, and I wouldn’t wish him to think he had leisure where he had not.”

“Of course,” Anne says, and Arthur must struggle not to hear the hint of irony. He turns to the kitchen window. Outside, the alders tremble, a buzzing of green. A thrush calls out four cheerful notes. He hears his wife move from the table, the scraping of the teapot, then a sharp sound as she pours out the precious brew.

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From All the World Beside by Garrard Conley. Used with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2024 by Garrard Conley.



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