The Burning of Bleak College


[Paradise, 1:]

The weather was awful: rain for three seasons, then sweltering heat, then rain again. Enormous flies spawned in the wetlands at the mouth of the Quinnipiac River: malformed flies with bird-like legs, flies with tiny canine heads. So the legend goes. “By this Wingèd Persecution we hope to attain more quickly to Earthlie Happiness,” Prosperity Bleak wrote in his journal, having already decided to found, in the middle of this wet grey wilderness, an institute of higher education.

[Boston, 1:]

In 1637, Anne Hutchison (or Hutchinson), for whom a suburban parkway would one day be named, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for “traducing the ministers” of the Colony, by which her accusers meant, inviting women to her house to talk about theology, and not apologizing to anyone for it. She taught that divine grace was accorded at birth, and no amount of polite behavior afterwards could make up for its absence. Anne knew that she was saved; why should she apologize? Those who accused her were “Baals, Priests, Popish Factors, Scribes, Pharisees and Opposers of Christ himself,” she said.

Her punishment was terrible. John Winthrop, the governor of the Colony, writes: “Mistris Hutchison being big with child, and growing towards the time of her labour, as other women doe, she brought forth not one (as Mistris Dier did) but (which was more strange to amazement) 30. monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another; few of any perfect shape, none at all of them (as far as I could learne) of humane shape.” Then she was banished. Anne and her husband and their monstrous brood fled to Rhode Island, which was known in those days as the “Island of Error,” because so many heretics lived there. Even the Rhode Islanders wouldn’t have her—and those monsters!—and she moved to New York, where, in 1643, she and her husband were killed by Indians, near a body of water called by the Dutch sailors Hell-Gate. The monsters escaped. More on them later.

[Mr. Bleak, 1:]

In the same year, a blind man named Prosperity Bleak arrived in Boston, bearing a letter from Dr. Sextus Halbmond of Leiden (Holland), which attested to his piety and his education. As the churches of Boston were fully staffed, Mr. Bleak preached in out-of-the-way places: in Smoaky rooms at the back of coffee houses, in dockside Warehouses, in Churches half-built, or half-destroyed by fire. In these places he made a name for himself with his doctrine of “Purposefull Suffering.” Where other ministers delivered sermons once or twice a week, Bleak held sixteen services; where other ministers urged chastity and abstinence from coffee, Bleak urged celibacy and abstinence from milk. “You cannot be Sprung, unless you are first Lock’d,” he said, “no more can you knowe Delight, unless you have tasted its Opposite.” His congregation was the largest in Boston, larger even than that of John Wilson (who had a knack for describing the fires of Hell), until it was discovered that no such person as Sextus Halbmond had ever lived in Leiden, or anywhere else. The only Bleak anyone could find a record of was a locksmith’s apprentice, who had come to Boston from Dorset.

[Mr. Bleak, 2:]

The name suits him so well, it seems like another of his fabrications. In fact the English telephone books abound with Bleaks, named not for the adjective but for the fish, Alburnus lucidus, a relative of the bream and the minnow. “It is found in European streams, and is caught by anglers, being also a favourite in aquariums. The well-known and important industry of ‘Essence Orientale’ and artificial pearls, carried on in France and Germany with the crystalline silvery colouring matter of the bleak, was introduced from China about the middle of the 17th century.” —Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. The fish is called ablette in French.

[Paradise, 2:]

As a blind locksmith, Mr. Bleak no more believed in Heaven than he did in Halbmond. He believed what his fingers told him: that there was no other world but the one that contained England and Boston and the great wilderness beyond. Likewise, his “Purposefull Suffering” had no end but the provocation of earthly delight.

And what delight! Stevedores rolled about on the floors of sheds that stank of fish; coffee fiends flung their hands in the air and cried that they would never sleep again; and in the roofless churches, men and women huddled, eating oranges and whispering secrets that they could not remember afterwards.

[Boston, 2:]

Boston was not built for that kind of happiness. Wilson preached against the “Fishy Bleaks,” who were, he said, relics of the same “pagan creation” that had peopled America with “Salvages”; and John Winthrop railed against “those followers of Mr. Bleak who lie upon the Common Grass and rub one another’s Haire.” In March of 1654, a warrant was issued for Bleak’s arrest on the grounds of witchcraft and incitement to riot. The officers went to Bleak’s house, but they found nothing except a treatise on raising demons from Hell (planted by Winthrop) and a bag of oranges.

[The Wilderness:]

In May, 1652, Prosperity Bleak visited the Island of Error, where he preached a sermon on “The Plan of Providence,” which mentioned ropes, pulleys, a fire, wheels, and things that had to be seen to be believed, but how they fit together, or what they had to do with Providence, no one could understand. In August of the same year Bleak narrowly escaped arrest in a Northampton tavern, where he had issued challenges to the “backwoods saint” Samuel Mather (father of Increase, grandfather of Cotton) to “pit the Invisible against the Felt.” Bleak fled to the wilderness. In 1656 or 57, he was said to be living among the Indians west of the Hudson River, where he impersonated a French trader named Ablette. In 1662, a blind Mr. Blick opened a shop on Gansevoort Street, in New Amsterdam, where he dealt in artificial pearls. In 1664, when New Amsterdam was handed over to the English, Mr. Blick vanished, too, and there was no trace of Bleak until the autumn of 1671, when he arrived in New Haven with letters from the clergy of Boston, attesting to his piety and learning. He was accompanied by a piebald quadruped that could only have been a dog, although some people swore they had heard it speak in a woman’s voice.

[The Children, 1:]

Who knows where he met them, around what fire, in what forest. They were not happy to see him. They hated human faces, as humans hated their snouts, muzzles, scales, etc. Even Anne had wept when they were born, and cried that Winthrop or some Priest must be their father, that they were the offspring of a forced copulation for which she was not to blame. In time she got over her horror, and wrapped them in blankets and rugs, but her feelings for the children remained cold. They stayed in the cellar (not imprisoned, just liked the darkness) and came up only when she wanted to show one of her friends what Winthrop had done to her. What an insult he had given her beliefs, what monsters the Puritans were. When the family moved to New Amsterdam, the children were allowed to play outside—probably Anne hoped they’d be slaughtered by the Indians who lurked in the forest. One day they came home and found the house ringed by those Indians, who shot burning arrows at the roof. The children looked at each other, shrugged, and retreated into the forest. They were monsters, after all.

“Monsters?” Mr. Bleak said, reaching his hands toward their fire. “In what sense?”

[The New-Haveners, 1:]

Strange doings in Mr. Bleak’s house on Prospect Street. Lights and noises at night. Comings and goings of Figures in Cloaks, and Shapeless Creatures in Carts. Frenzied barking of dogs. Great laying-in of provisions, including much Food not fit for any Man: spoiled Meat, Corn, etc. Digging, constant digging. Speech in unknown Languages, and Inhuman Cries. What is happening? Mr. Bleak is building a school.

[The Graduate, 1:]

Bleak College opened its doors on August 21, 1676, which would have made it the oldest continuously operating college in Connecticut, if a mob hadn’t burned it to the ground three years later. Most of what we know about its first incarnation comes from the “True Description of Bleak College Its Heresies Its Destruction” by Martin Lyall, whose son Charles was a member of the ill-fated class of 1679. According to Lyall, the college was remarkable not so much for its curriculum (theology, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as the “technologica,” as the Puritans called earthly knowledge) as for its architectural peculiarities: the tunnels that connected the four main buildings; the tower atop West House that lacked interior stairs, so that the only way to get to the top was to climb the outside. The fact that the college had a total of exactly 30 doors, and this number was so strictly maintained that, if a new door had to be cut somewhere, Mr. Bleak nailed an old door shut. The telescope atop West House, which was trained on the churches of New Haven Green, as though some danger was to be feared from their direction. The shed which no one was allowed to visit until the eve of their graduation, and then only on the condition that they tell no one what they had seen.

[The Graduate, 2:]

“Upon Prising apart the Lock (Lyall writes), we found within a Great Framework of Ropes and Wheels, with a Fire at the bottom of it, and, suspended over the fire, a Chair, in which my Sonne sat, clutching at its Arms and evidently very Afraid to fall. Over his Head hung various Discs, representing, the Sun and Moon, and a Ravening Wolf, and the Stars, and Birds in Flight, all Drawn as it were from Life, and moving in their Orbits at various Speeds. What was stranger still, I dare hardly Tell you: the whole Device was Turn’d by Beasts, or Monsters. A Great Creature with a Lion’s Body and the Head of a Bat pumped the Bellows, while Fluttering Atrocities saw to the Motion of the Stars, and Charles’s rope was held at the Lower Extremity by a Nude Woman with the Head of a Hen. About her feet there slithered Creatures without Legs, although they had Faces, and these Faces they turned to us with an Expression as it were of Contempt. [ . . . ] When we had Charles down from the Chair, and had tied Mr. Bleak in his own Ropes, we Interrogated him, as to the Purpose of his Machine. ‘It is meant to shew us how Providence works,’ said Charles; but Mr. Bleak, who retained the manner of a Schoolteacher even when Bound, chided him with these words: ‘Charles, it is providence.’ ”

[The Children, 2:]

They burned the shed that housed Providence first, then the main building with its stairless tower, the dormitory and the kitchen. Anne’s children watched from the woods. When the ashes were cool, they came back to see if they could salvage anything of value. Elizabeth (seal’s body; head of a crow) took the disc painted to look like the sun, and Prudence (dog’s body, woman’s head) took a few of the imitation pearls that represented the stars. When Bleak College re-opened, half a century later, under the direction of a Rhode Islander named Ablet, whose education and piety were beyond doubt, they brought these things back and offered them as gifts, in memory, they said, of someone who saw what was. The disc and pearls were displayed in Bleak’s museum as “Indian Relics” until 1871, when this fiction could no longer be maintained; then they were moved to the library.

Paul LaFarge is the author of Haussmann, or the Distinction (FSG) and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. This story is from Luminous Airplanes, a novel in progress.

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