I learned something about obsession during my time with the Fenshaws. I learned it isn't madness or even foolishness, though madness and foolishness have given it a bad name. How could anyone who wasn't obsessed compose a symphony or write a thousand-page novel? How could anyone who wasn't obsessed cross an uncharted ocean in a seventy-foot sailboat? No one sneers at people like these, but they will sneer at someone whose obsession drives them to fill a house with starving cats or to build a half-size model of the Brandenburg Gate out of matchsticks. I almost feel that someone who lives without an obsession has a poor sort of life.
I wasn't obsessed with anything when I joined the Fenshaws in Tunis, their home. The possibility of reincarnation fascinated me, but I was neither a believer nor a nonbeliever. I was there to satisfy my curiosity one way or the other, and if I'd somehow managed to do that immediately, I probably would've gone on to other things without a backward look.
One can't plausibly begin to do fieldwork without being familiar with the classic cases, and the Fenshaws had been feeding me these for a year before I arrived. In a way, these were more frustrating than the rest, because each would have been profoundly persuasive if someone had taken the trouble to demonstrate with reasonable certainty that they weren't just instances of people seeing what they wanted to see. After the event, however, no test can be run that will reveal whether what you have is gold or pyrite.
My first investigation took me to Johannesburg at the other end of the continent, where (we'd been told) there lived a young man who one morning woke up speaking a strange language that was finally determined to be ancient Persian. The young man, Rudolph Kintmacher by name, mystified all with uncanny tales of the court of Darius I, the greatest of the Achaemenid kings, which (as far as anyone could tell) were absolutely true. With this, I learned the first rule of reincarnation research, which is: If you don't investigate the silly stories, then you might as well just pack up and go home. I investigated and found it was just as silly as it sounded.
The facts (which Rudolph freely provided) bore little resemblance to what we'd heard. To begin with, he hadn't "woken up one morning" speaking Persian. He'd discovered the delight of glossolalia -- speaking in tongues -- long ago, while in his early teens, and had entertained friends with the trick for years before he began to take himself seriously and wonder just what language he was speaking. It was of course no language at all, but he managed to find an expert who swore it sounded just the way he'd always imagined the ancient Persians might sound. Reading up on them, Rudolph said he began to experience a powerful sense of déjà vu, especially when it came to the reign of the first Darius -- and the rest followed as night the day.
Over the next three years I investigated four dozen cases as worthless as this one (and was on the verge of quitting) when at last I caught a glimpse of the gold.
Nine-year-old Eddie Tucker of Council Bluffs, Iowa, one morning asked his mother about the time he got sick in the boardinghouse in O'Neill. She told him he must have dreamed it, because he'd never been sick in any boardinghouse anywhere. He insisted it wasn't a dream, it was something he remembered from a long time ago. It didn't matter how long ago it was, she said, because they'd never lived anywhere but in Council Bluffs and had never even visited a place called O'Neill. In fact, she'd never even heard of it.
The boy gave up, but only temporarily. A few hours later he came back to say he remembered that the boardinghouse had a little fish pond in the backyard, and a boy named Perry from across the street had made him a toy boat driven by a rubber band and propeller. He drew her a picture to show her what he was talking about. Her rejoinder was, "I thought you were sick at this place."
"That was later," Eddie said.
Perry had also given him a coin he'd made himself that looked just like regular money. Eddie said he could get rich if he made his own money, but Perry explained that the counterfeit cost more to make than real money, which was a little over Eddie's head at the time.
"I don't know where you're getting all this stuff," Eddie's mother said. "This never happened."
"How would you know?" Eddie riposted. "You weren't there."
"Where was I?"
"I mean Perry and I were playing together. You weren't out there playing with us."
"Was I in the house?"
But he didn't remember anything about that.
A few days later Eddie told his mother he'd hidden some things behind a loose brick in the foundation of the house in O'Neill, some coins, maybe. He didn't remember exactly what he'd put there, but he was sure he could find the brick.
"Do you think the things are still there?" his mother asked.
"I'll bet they are," he said.
"Why didn't you get them when we left?"
But he didn't know the answer to that.
In spite of herself, Eddie's mother had become intrigued. They got out an atlas and turned to the index for Iowa. There was an O'Brien but no O'Neill.
"Could it have been O'Brien?" she asked.
"No, I'm sure it was O'Neill."
"Well, there isn't any O'Neill."
"Try Nebraska," Eddie said -- and there it was.
Checking the map, they found it was about two hundred miles northwest of Omaha, just across the river from Council Bluffs. On the weekend, mother and boy prevailed on Dad to drive them up there. O'Neill isn't a metropolis, but it still took Eddie a while to spot the house. He wanted to head straight for the loose brick but was restrained by his parents, who knew they had to introduce themselves to the residents before starting to dismantle the foundation. The owner of the house, Thorvald Boyle, politely invited them in and listened to their story before explaining that the house still offered lodging but no longer board in this day and age. He'd acquired the house just ten years ago, when there were plenty of loose bricks in the foundation, but it had all been repointed since then. There'd also been a fish pond in the backyard, but when he bought the place it was no longer in use, having cracked one winter back in the sixties or seventies. Considering it an eyesore and not worth fixing, he'd had it ripped out.
There was no boy named Perry living across the street, but there was an old man of that name living there, in a house that had been in the Schuylkill family for something like four generations.
The Tuckers found Perry Schuylkill to be a pleasant and well-preserved eighty-six-year-old with a full head of white hair and a farmer's ruddy complexion (though he wasn't a farmer). He listened to their tale with bright-eyed interest and evident puzzlement, glancing back and forth between mother and son. When they were done, he said, "Well, this is a hell of a thing. I don't know what to think."
He stared at the boy for a long time, then began his own tale.
"There was a family that boarded across the street back in 1920 or so. I guess I was twelve or thirteen, so that would put it back in 1919 or 1920. It don't remember their name -- I mean their family name. It might have been Dickens or Pickens or something like that. I can't think what business Mr. Pickens was in, but I know they didn't have a lot of money. There was a boy and a girl, though I only remember the girl, who was my age or a year or two younger. My goodness, I do remember that girl, Rita May, because she was the first love of my life, and I had the biggest crush on her you'd ever want to see. I spent a whole summer trying to impress her, and I guess maybe I did." Here Perry Schuylkill gave Eddie another long look.
"It was for her I made that nifty little boat. I remember I got the wood from a drawer-bottom of a cast-off bureau of some kind. And that coin. I remember making that for her too. She took hold of it and said, It feels funny, sort of slick, like it's got oil on it.'"
"I remember that," Eddie said. "And you said, That's just from the process,' or something like that."
Mr. Schuylkill nodded, and Eddie's mother burst into tears, for no reason she could ever cogently explain.
At the end of the summer, Mr. Schuylkill went on, Rita May fell ill. He thought it might have been rheumatic fever but couldn't be sure. "I didn't care what it was," he said. "I just wanted it to go away. But it didn't, and my precious love passed away in a little room under the fourth-floor eaves of that house right over there. I can show it to you if you like. I'm sure Mr. Boyle wouldn't mind."
But Eddie's mother wanted no part of that.
After their visit to O'Neill, Eddie dredged up a few more details of his life as Rita May Pickens, but he later admitted that even he wasn't sure whether he'd dredged them up or made them up.
It took two years for rumors of the case to reach our ears -- a usual sort of interval -- but Perry Schuylkill was still alive and alert, as were all the others. It all checked out. All the principals and witnesses seemed guileless, earnest types who had nothing to gain from deceiving me or anyone else.
It was a classic, but what did it actually amount to? Having a fish pond in the backyard was hardly unique to that one house. It would have been different if it had been a pagoda or a pyramid. The loose brick was no longer there to be counted, so it all comes down to a toy boat, a counterfeit coin, and a recollection of being sick in a town with a name that, to my surprise, proved to be unique. I was unable to find even one more O'Neill (or anything like it) anywhere else in the world.
It wasn't much, but I'd seen the glint of gold with my own eyes and could no longer doubt its existence. I wanted to see more -- and in extractable, weighable, usable amounts.
The obsession was finally upon me.
Seven more years flew by, and by the time I next saw gold everyone had gotten used to writing year dates starting with 20 instead of 19.